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Proposed Seattle Renters’ Commission will tackle tenant rights, affordability

Capitol Hill’s calls for a Seattle Renters’ Commission will soon be answered creating what is likely the first such official body in the nation.

CHS has learned legislation to create a 15-member commission to represent tenants rights and weigh in on issues of development and affordability could be introduced as early as Monday.

“The goal is to attract folks across the whole spectrum,” the Capitol Hill Community Council’s Zachary DeWolf said. “Families, seniors, geographic diversity, vouchers, newer units, older units. Everyone.”

The offices of Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, Mike O’Brien, and Lisa Herbold have been working to finalize the proposal that comes as Seattle residents continue to face one of the most expensive rental markets… in the world.

The idea of a renters’ commission in Seattle first took shape when DeWolf presented on the idea at a Capitol Hill Housing community forum last spring. It took more shape at the EcoDistrict’s Renter Summit in September 2016, when Nick Licata, who previously had been a longtime Capitol Hill renter, walked the group through the nuts and bolts of making connections within City Hall.

In November 2016, Capitol Hill Housing’s Joe Sisolak and the Community Council’s DeWolf made the case in the Seattle Times in an essay calling for the create of a Seattle renters’ commission:

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.

The commission has become a popular governing tool for Mayor Ed Murray. Earlier this month, Murray put out the first calls for members to join his new Community Involvement Commission formed to encourage more diverse feedback on city initiatives. Commissioner requirements for that task force boil down to “three to six” hours per month meeting to help “advise and guide our City departments to assess, improve, and develop authentic and thorough outreach and engagement to all residents,”

Xochitl Maykovich with the Washington Community Action Network said the organization has provided some input in drafting the renters’ commission legislation.

She said the legislation aims to include renters of color, low income, and the LGBTQ community, among others who feel the brunt of the housing crisis on the commission.

“The priority is to have the voices of people from oppressed communities on this commission,” Maykovich said.

Jessa Lewis, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, agreed that representation from marginalized communities and those at risk of displacement is needed the most.

“These groups have traditionally lacked access to decision makers and resources due to lack of time and resources compared to developers, landlord, and those least impacted by the rising rents in our city,” Lewis told CHS.

Lewis herself has experienced a “no-fault eviction” and even had to live in her car with her daughter at one point.

“The vision of empowering renters with the tools to advocate for themselves is what brought me to the Tenants Union and is also why the Tenants Union is taking such interest in the creation of this commission. It must not be a rubber stamp to approve a pro-developer agenda for the city,” Lewis told CHS.

Maykovich said Washington CAN!, an organization working for racial, social, gender, and economic justice, also believes it’s important to continue include representatives of organizations who work on renting and housing issues because having the support of an organization can be helpful when the commission needs to put pressure on the city council or mayor to take action.

However, she does think the legislation to create a renters’ commission is a step in the right direction and a positive sign from elected officials.

“I think that the fact that the City Council is drafting this legislation and they are taking seriously the need to have voices from oppressed communities on the commission is a sign that they want to continue working to solve the housing crisis,” Maykovich said.

Lewis said the Tenants Union hopes that the new commission will be able to provide more evidence to elected officials of the housing crisis so that more work will be done to prevent displacement and homelessness.

“Ideally the commission can identify gaps in HALA (the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) and expand the accessibility so that regular members of the community can participate in a process that can be insular and jargon-heavy,” Lewis said.


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15 thoughts on “Proposed Seattle Renters’ Commission will tackle tenant rights, affordability

  1. It’s like this-Every time that a voter approved tax increase is approved, rents rise. A housing levy to build affordable housing raises property taxes, and therein raises rents. This both makes affordable rents more necessary and less obtainable. The point is that _some_ of the rent increase is self inflicted. You can approve all the tax increases you want, but recognize that even if you rent, you’re paying them.

    • Don’t worry. I’m sure at the top of the list this renter’s commission plans to address will be the never-ending parade of tax levies that boost their rents, right? Because renters more than anyone understand the connection between property taxes on their landlords, and rent increases. Count on it.

    • Are our property taxes really any higher than other cities with similar size, density and economic output?

      We are the world’s 24th largest city GDP afterall, comparable with Madrid/Toronto/Shanghai (PwC estimate). Not to mention our extremely distinct geography that makes living here that much more difficult and thus more expensive. Sure, a flat sprawling city like Houston has an environment that’s more amenable to cheaper public works projects. But, Seattle is tough! (think bridges, tunnels, water, mountains)

      Please don’t murder me in the comments. I’m just curious…

    • Woonerf: The short answer, yes. The real answer is more complex. Washington has no income tax so funds must be accumulated through other means. Property and sales taxes are a larger source of revenue than in many other states. New Jersey has both income taxes and viciously high property taxes, so we are by no means the highest taxed state. We are overall pretty average in terms of it’s revenue per person.

  2. How on Earth can any of the previous commenters take issue with the formation of a group that is designed to educate and unify renters, with a special eye toward engaging those who have previously been unable to be part of such groups? The sarcasm and derision displayed in the comments shows cynicism and lack of problem-solving mentality that is truly sad. What if, instead, you applauded the efforts of the group and assumed the best – that they will work toward an open exchange of ideas and not start out being polarized? Would that kind of energy behind such a commission perhaps be more positive instead of the rude, dismissive comments? I think so. Geez, people, give your glass-half-emptiness a rest.

    • It not about being an optimist. It’s about why rent is so damn high. Sticking our heads in the sand about the causes won’t help.

    • No issue with the group. This is a difficult and complex topic. A fast way to lower rents would be a disastrous economy and significant unemployment. People would have no income and would be homeless, not because of high rent, but because they had no income, thus solving nothing. There are those who want to blame everyone else for their problems and expect others to solve them. I’m not one of them. My point, higher taxes are partly responsible for higher rent.

  3. The levies are not the main reason rent is so damn high. Yes, they are part of the rent because they get passed along from landlord to tenant. Far more renters than you all think understand this. If you spoke to some renters you would learn this.

    The main reason rent is so damn high is because huge numbers of people are moving to the city rapidly, and construction isn’t coming anywhere close to keeping up with the demand. Demand increasing faster than supply = increasing prices. The same landlord can charge way more money for the same property than before, because somebody who makes a lot of money and/or is desperate will pay it. And those who can’t get priced out.

    • People fail to understand that Seattle has an outstanding job market and people are pouring in to work here yet we don’t have enough competitive housing for them all.

      They rather have boutique 40 unit apartments pop up here and there thinking that will suffice. Well, it doesn’t suffice.

  4. If a commission is formed, I hope it includes a landlord or two. You’d be amazed by all the taxes and fees that landlords pay.

    Seattle had 62 cranes dotting the skyline at the end of 2016, the most in the country. I’d say, give the market a chance to work.

    Also, can someone cite an example where more regulations and bureaucracy has lowered cost of housing?

  5. This is a good idea! The inclusion of the low income is vital for a thriving cultural intergenerational community.
    Additionally, geographically speaking it makes sense ,seeing that Capital Hill is the Hub of Seattle’s waterfronts and bridges many neighborhoods.
    This is a crucial methodological solution for a healthy sustainable city.
    Ms. Victoria McCormick