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Capitol Hill Community Post | Why renters matter

Renters must be engaged about HALA. After all, renters comprise nearly half of Seattle’s citizenry and it is renters who face getting priced out of neighborhoods by rising rents.

Late last month, Mayor Murray hosted a cheerleading session for the City’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda or HALA. It was a packed room filled with enthusiasm for implementing the 65 recommendations that emerged last July in response to Seattle’s housing crisis. Comments by Sara Maxana, a homeowner in NW Seattle, were a highlight. Referring to the rapidly escalating value of homes like hers and the resulting impacts on renters, Maxana said:

“I don’t see why one class of people, homeowners, should be getting a windfall from the same phenomenon that is causing other people in Seattle to struggle,” she said. “I don’t think that’s okay.”

Before closing the meeting, Murray took a handful of questions from the crowd. “Guy in the Striped Shirt” asked an important question: “How will renters be engaged in discussions about HALA?”

The mayor responded very generally, saying that we need to engage everybody: owners and renters, young and old, etc. and etc. I would respond more directly. Renters must be engaged about HALA. After all, renters comprise nearly half of Seattle’s citizenry and it is renters who face getting priced out of neighborhoods by rising rents.

But engaging renters to address neighborhood issues isn’t easy.

There’s a section in Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam’s treatise on the decline of civic engagement in post-war America, about how homeowners, due to their “rootedness,” tend to be more engaged in civic life than renters of similar age, income, and education. Putnam suggests that since renters are more likely to move out of a neighborhood, they are less likely to care about local decision-making. Renters also are less motivated by “exchange value interests”, ie protecting property values, so are less likely to engage in civic activities that may preserve or increase property values (Manturuk).

Generally, renters are less likely to show up for public meetings or participate in local churches and community clubs. But we know that renters do certainly care about their environment. They care deeply about how a neighborhood feels – is it safe, inclusive, clean? They care about its walkability – is it close to services, amenities and open space? And, of course, they care about its affordability.

We also know that residents living in the heart of Capitol Hill, 80 percent of whom are renters, are not apathetic or disaffected. The voter turnout from the 43rd legislative district was higher than most Seattle districts this past cycle (though that’s admittedly a low bar) and we re-elected the first socialist on the Seattle City Council in a hundred years– a second-term city councilmember who last Thursday sent out a blast email with a now-familiar tone.

Seattle is a very wealthy city, and is experiencing an economic boom. But this is a boom that is primarily benefiting a small wealthy elite. Economic inequality has expanded, with the city’s middle class shrinking rapidly.”

This message decrying inequality should resonate with the renters living in her district. According to the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances,homeowner net worth ranges from 31 to 46 times that of renters, and that inequality is growing. Economics prodigyMatthew Rognlie made waves in 2015 by showing that “surging house prices are almost entirely responsible for [the] growing returns on capital” identified in Thomas Piketty’s best-sellingCapital in the 21st Century as the source of the wealth gap in America.16-0203 why renters matter

At the meeting last Tuesday, a small group of angry Wallingford homeowners showed up with placards protesting the greed of developers and demanding time at the microphone to speak against the HALA agenda. Reminders that this wasn’t a public hearing didn’t deter them.

As Josh Feit points out in Publicola,it’s pretty rich for single family homeowners to protest getting shut out of a conversation. Since this nation’s founding, property owners and their rights have been at the center of politics and power. John Adams declared property rights “as sacred as the law of God,” andHoover urged homeownership, believing that “if one had an equity stake in the country, they’d less likely fall under the spell of Communism.”As recently as the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, homeownership was touted akin to civic duty.

American housing policy has favored homeowners for some time (providing federal mortgage insurance, the mortgage interest tax deducation, and other benefits). The MacArthur Foundation recentlyreported that: “While roughly 35 percent of Americans rent and the other 65 percent own, the federal government spends approximately three times as much to support homeownership as it does to support renting.”

Even as governments continue to push homeownership, the social bias towards homeownership appears to be shifting. Three in five adults (61 percent)believe that “renters can be just as successful as homeowners in achieving the American Dream.” This shift correlates with a broader shift in opinion towards ownership in general. According to Janelle Nanos (and many others who have heralded the arrival of the sharing economy) atBoston Magazine:

A startling number of young people… have begun to question one of the central tenets of American culture: ownership. It’s a change that has arrived thanks to a confluence of developments. Times are tough. … Simultaneously, rapidly evolving technologies are enabling a new kind of connectedness and sharing, just as more of us than ever before are moving to urban areas. And more and more of us are at last awakening to the terrifying idea that our quintessentially American drive to own and consume more is bringing about dramatically harmful climate change. As a result,many of us are starting to rethink what it means to own something [emphasis added].

I suggest that it is time for renters, Capitol Hill’s majority population, to assume ownership for the health and livability of the neighborhood.

Besides voter turnout, there are hopeful signs of renter engagement on Capitol Hill. Top for me is theCapitol Hill Community Council under the leadership of President Zachary Pullin, a self-described YIMBY = “Yes in My Backyard,” and a committed board of mostly young renters. Their agenda is both progressive and action oriented. They hosted one of the first community meetings in the City about HALA, are leading on addressing homelessness in the neighborhood, improving walking, biking, and transit service, and starting important neighborhood conversations about criminal justice reform and services to address mental illness and substance abuse.

Capitol Hill Housing plans to build upon this foundation and create a solid base of renter leadership. Our 2016 renter initiative will invite more renters to assume leadership roles in defining and addressing the topics of greatest interest to renters. We will recruit and support “ambassadors” from buildings across the EcoDistrict and host a Renter Summit in September focused on the HALA agenda.

Recruitment for the renter initiative has begun,so if you’re looking for a way to own what’s happening in the neighborhood, here’s your chance. Email Alex Brennan at or call 206-204-3803.

Civic engagement takes time and investment. Not every renter will choose to make this commitment, but we hope that many will. Communities with a high level of civic engagement have fewer social problems, lower crime rates, and are more cohesive. And if the HALA agenda is to succeed in Capitol Hill, it will require renters getting involved.

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16 thoughts on “Capitol Hill Community Post | Why renters matter

  1. a large part of the problem is vacation rental units, or VRUs. in my condo building alone, several owners own many units and rent them out like hotels. these owners do not live in the building and several don’t even live in the state! these units could be used as long term rentals, but since they are not, they are reducing the available inventory. it’s a shame.

  2. Renters are not getting pushes out by rising rents. They are getting pushed out by other renters. Renters clammerimg for the same units are pushing rents higher. When you have a single unit that gets twenty applicants, what are you supposed to do? Either way 19 people will be bummed.

  3. I am unclear. Have I done something wrong by buying a house. Is the act itself an oppression of my fellow man? And are the benefits I have received through care and ownership of my property to be wrested away for the benefit of someone else? I have nothing but applause for encouraging others to engage in their community, but in this case, to what end? It all seems an ominous call to arms against homeowners and their perceived advantages. Why again is this newsworthy?

    • Unfortunately, the homeowner class (let’s call them the 35%) often interferes with the interests of the renting class (the 65%, excluding those who cannot even afford to rent).

      There are only two solutions to the problem of high rents: fewer renters, and more apartments.

      Sadly, some members of the 35% fight the interests of the 65% by fighting the construction of new apartments, often by appropriating phony populist and environmentalist rhetoric. In particular, these frankly snobbish people fight the construction of more affordable forms of rental property near their own homes.

      By doing so, they raise the cost of building new apartments and force members of the 65% to live more marginal lives, often with long and costly commutes.

      In the short run at least, they increase the value of their homes, which are a scarce commodity. Yet these people have the nerve to claim it is the developers who are greedy!

      Glenn, I hope you are one of the YIMBYs, not one of the NIMBYs. And let’s hope that the renters who get organized see where their real interests lie.

    • Yes, Glenn, and you should also feel very guilty of planning ahead, getting a decent education, saving money for a down payment, and working hard! Shame on you!

      • Glen, you didn’t get the invite to the Downtown Association YIMBY fest did you? Ok. Here’s a primer to live in Seattle. Just 2 things to do. It’s not that hard.

        1. Always give way to YIMBYs. That means parking space too.
        2. **Don’t forget to pay your property tax and vote yes for every levy this year.

        -your new YIMBY neighbors

      • Yes, because the rest of us aren’t educated or are planning ahead. Sorry I was born in a state with sub-par public education. Sorry I was born in a time when college tuition is the highest, with a large swath of my generation underpaid, overqualified, unemployed, or fucked by the system in some dead end job. Let’s also remember all the government subsidies homeowners receive that renters do not. Let’s also remember that since 1998 we’ve known about global warming, but have had privileged, eyes-shut politicians keep on this unsustainable status quo that worships the car, the suburbs, and the death of public amenities. Our cities need to change for the next generation.

        I am educated. I vote. I volunteer and fight in the political and social life of this city, striving to make it better every day. I deserve a voice and a place that I can afford in this city where I work and thrive.

      • Let’s stop to remember the true heroes in this fight, the forum posters. They’re the ones sticking their necks on the line.

      • @nettles: I didn’t mean to offend you….I’m sure there are many renters out there just like you. Your complaints are valid. It certainly is much more difficult to become a homeowner now compared to when I did it, but it is still possible. Utilizing what you have done, you will get there too, and I wish you the best of luck in doing so.

  4. The tech companies and the developers bringing all these people to Seattle need to get together and subsidize their employees’ rents. Why should homeowners, many of whom almost lost their homes to say nothing of the home owners who became homeless, have to solve this problem? I never thought I would own a home but because of my parents who left all of their 8 children a little money I was able to make a down payment on a house. Both of my parents work for the post office in the day when working people got a cost of living raise every year. The only reason we don’t get cost of living any more is because Wall Street pays off the politicians vote for them in secret in the dark of night. It’s not that the rich are smarter than the American people, it’s just that not everybody needs to be a big shot, they just want a roof over their heads with heat, food and a warm bed and a living wage. All this inhumanity in Seattle didn’t just happen, it happened because of systemic geedy decisions that are made step by step over time. Decisions made by the few against the many. The U.S. fuel runs on capitalism not democracy. We have more people in prison than any other country in the world because of an unjust judicial system. But at least they get free food and a roof over their heads, which is more than the homeless have. Think about it. My home is the only investment I have and the greedy powers that be want to sale Seattle to China so the the rest of us can all live on top of each other in these ugly apartment buildings with no yards while ultra rich Americans and China build giant homes away from all the mess they have caused. Hell no! Do not look at the citizens who have the least to solve this shameful situation of those who have even less. Take the money from the rich who they stole who they took it from in the first place. If China wants to get rich off of Americans then we the people should profit through real monatary in just like the wealthy do. Don’t say that is crazy, because who would have thought the 1% of the people would own more 99% of the rest of us? The rich are the reason there is homelessness. They have been telling the American people that this mess is our fault, while stealing food out of the mouths of are children, literally. We need to get our self-esteem back. Seattle is no longer the most liveable city in the country. I remember when you could look up and see the sky,but now these ugly apartments are even blocking the grey.

    • As a solution to high rents, you propose that tech companies and developers should get together and subsidize rents?

      How would you decide who gets the subsidies? Would there be Seattle office to determine who the deserving people are?

      The real problem is supply and demand. Too many renters, and not enough apartments. Perhaps the Seattle deservedness office could make decisions about which people are not deserving enough and should live in Bothell or Renton instead.

      But what about the obvious solution, more apartments?

  5. Again, this is what you get with over 50 years (that’s over half a Century folks) of one Party progressive Democratic rule in Seattle.

    • You read all this about affordability crisis and somehow come up blaming Democrats? Republicans would somehow be more helpful? This whole issue seems pretty much textbook Republican-bible supply/demand/market-based to me. Illuminate me– which Republican values and programs would’ve made this better? Yeah, “this is what you get”. With Republicans at the helm, you would’ve gotten– WORSE.

  6. Please get granular on solutions that do not involve a transfer from the pocket of one individual to another. The sad reality is that there are lots of places with available housing and lower rents. Unfortunately most of those places also lack sufficient jobs and/or desirable jobs. Detroit for example, or closer to us try Hoquiam. You can get downtown business real estate for a song as well, since many of the places are boarded up when the prior business failed. Jobs attract people and people attract jobs.

    I remember less than a decade ago, driving down a rather deserved Pike street, with zero construction going on, commercial buildings built on spec that were desperate for tenants, some of which went into near receivership (for example the WAMU renamed Russell building). Homeowners were underwater and many reading this blog had not yet set foot in Seattle. As to NIMBY, those of us who have a sizable investment in our house and neighborhood are not against growth, but we are against junky construction designed for short-term gain rather than quality design and scale. We are against someone building a bunch of units with zero parking, under the illusion that a sizable number of renters will not own cars and will use transit. The reality is that many will use transit but have a car in the neighborhood for when they want to shop or leave town. Renters and homeowners are not that disparate, and are often the same people at different times in their lives. I rented when young and have kids who rent now and are facing the same issues as others. The issues are complex but nobody can really claim a position of clear virtue over the others. Seattle is under incredible pressure from all sides now. You can be damn sure that my neighbors and I will put up as strong a fight as any other group to advance what we see as both our own and the common interest.