By Joel Sisolak, Capitol Hill EcoDistrict Director
Last month, affordable housing developer Mercy Housing completed a large new building with a total of 108 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments, a block from my home. I live with my wife and daughter in a small single family home in the Othello neighborhood of the Rainier Valley. We’re close to a light rail station and our block is part of a proposed expansion and upzone of the Othello Urban Village. Not all of my neighbors are happy about the Mercy Housing project or the development of more apartment buildings expected to follow. Some people worry about losing the parking in front of their homes. Others argue that renters don’t take care of things as well as owners, that they are transient. Others think that owners and long-time residents have earned a louder voice in the decisions affecting our block. After all, they have more at stake.
Thankfully, not all of my neighbors feel this way. Some recognize that “folks have to live somewhere” and buying a home is out of reach for most of the people they know. In fact, half the 2,100 applications to live in the affordable units at the Mercy Housing buildings are from our neighborhood. At a recent community meeting, I even heard some of my neighbors advocate for a bigger expansion of the urban village. Some locals know that renters can be great neighbors, just as some property owners can be assholes.
Renter households now outnumber homeowner households across the City, and as with Seattle homeowners, “Seattle renters” comprise a large and diverse group. They are families and individuals, professionals and students, queer and straight, young and old, white and people of color, low and middle income, long-time renters and people saving to buy a first home. They live in studios, 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments, single family homes, townhomes, dormitories, mother-in-law apartments, SROs and aPodments. Groups of roommates share space while some individuals live alone either by choice or circumstance.
The Capitol Hill Renter Initiative (CHRI) was started a year ago to engage local members of this diverse group to advocate for things renters seem to universally want, the very same things I wanted 20 years ago when I rented a little studio on Fremont Ave: affordability, mobility (i.e walkability, bikeability, transit access), public safety, and access to nearby amenities and necessities, like groceries and green space. Green space is critical, since most renters don’t have a backyard to relax in, garden, raise chickens or barbecue ribs.
The renters engaged in the CHRI are motivated, insightful community leaders who care deeply about the neighborhood and care deeply about keeping it livable for the many residents who want to live in a dense urban setting. They are the opposite of the stereotypes some owners like to throw out as arguments against empowering renters to affect local and municipal governance. CHRI members show up to testify for affordability and livability legislation, they show up to support greenways and protected bike lanes, they show up to advocate for better transit access, they show up for green space.
Last week, City Councilmembers Burgess, O’Brien and Herbold announced their plan to introduce legislation that will form the first Renters’ Commission in the country. It will address development and affordability issues, as well as transportation, open space, education, and public health. This bodes well for Seattle’s neighborhoods and should be welcomed by all of Seattle’s renters and owners. Through the CHRI, we have found that with a bit of education, coordination and encouragement, renters can be motivated, insightful and effective advocates for the very things that make Capitol Hill, and all of Seattle, great.
The first hearing of Council Bill 118921, the ordinance to create the Seattle Renter Commission, will be this Friday, March 3 at 9:30 at the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods and Finance Committee. If you support this legislation, be like the CHRI members and show up. You can also submit comments to the City Council via email.