Of the many ideas that emerged during September’s Capitol Hill Renter Summit, the call for a louder, more permanent voice for the city’s tenants came through most clearly. Recently, Capitol Hill Housing’s Joe Sisolak and the Capitol Hill Community Council’s Zachary DeWolf spilled some ink in the Seattle Times in an essay calling for the creation of a Seattle renters’ commission. We’ve shared the piece, below. To get involved, check out facebook.com/CapitolHillEcoDistrict/ for upcoming meetings and events.
Seattle needs a renters’ commission to include more voices in policymaking
By Zachary DeWolf and Joel Sisolak
WHEN Seattle Mayor Ed Murray cut formal ties with the neighborhood district-council system in July, he pointed to the fact that they did not reflect the full diversity of their neighborhoods. District council officers and attendees, the mayor said, tended to be 40 years or older, white, with the vast majority owning their homes, as opposed to renting.
If the mayor wants more diverse voices at the table, there is one idea that is generating support: Form a citywide “renters’ commission.”
Currently the city utilizes commissions, including the Arts Commission, LGBTQ Commission and Youth Commission to serve as a link between the public and city government. Commissions play a vital role in gathering community opinion and sourcing recommendations for policy changes that can help a particular population. The lack of a renters’ commission is a glaring omission, especially given that renters make up nearly half of all households in Seattle, and their voices have historically been left out of decisions shaping our city.
For example, when the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee released its recommendation to increase urban villages across the city, it was met with loud opposition for intruding on the rights of homeowners. No organized renters’ voices were able to speak out about how increased multifamily housing across the city could help relieve the financial squeeze renters experience each year as rents rise.
A renters’ commission would make sure city policymaking considers the effects on people who rent — a group shown to be younger, less wealthy, less white and less car-dependent than their home-owning counterparts.
The commission would represent the voices of renters who don’t have the schedules, baby sitters or salaries to show up to middle-of-the-day meetings and comment periods. It would ensure that the representation of renter voices isn’t dependent on who is currently on City Council. And it would help ensure that renters’ rights, like recently expanded protections that ban discrimination in rental housing based on a prospective renter’s source of income or place of employment are enforced and revised, as needed. It could even be responsible for fostering civic engagement of renters by registering them to vote, for example.
Commissions have a longstanding place in Seattle politics, creating what former councilmember Nick Licata describes as “portals” for citizen engagement. In his book, “Becoming a Citizen Activist,” Licata describes the formation of the Seattle Women’s Commission in 1971 as a key step in bringing greater equality to our city. The commission successfully advocated for fair employment practices, all the way up to its push in 2011 for the Paid Sick and Safe Time Ordinance. The formation of a city commission allowed it to consistently advocate for all women, enacting far greater change than any movement brought by individual activists alone.
Forming a renters’ commission would require passage of an ordinance. The Capitol Hill Community Council has been advocating for a renters’ commission since May. At the Capitol Hill Renter Summit last month, the idea of a renters’ commission was supported by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Rob Johnson. We hope the rest of the council will join in support.
The mayor would also need to identify a city department to staff a new commission. The Seattle Department of Neighborhoods seems a natural fit given its commitment to strengthening the connection between city government and the people. Or the mayor might look to the Office of Planning and Community Development, with its commitment to partnering with neighborhoods “to bring about positive change and coordinate investments for our Seattle communities.”
Last month, more than 100 renters from across Capitol Hill gathered to demand a greater voice in shaping their neighborhood’s future, pushing back against stereotypes of renters as transient or uninvolved in their community. The Capitol Hill Renter Initiative and Capitol Hill Community Council will continue to focus locally, but renters need representation across our city, not just in one neighborhood.
It’s time for the city to take renters seriously. It’s time to retool the city’s resident-engagement efforts to be more fair and inclusive. It’s time for Seattle to have a renters’ commission.