Between 2010 and 2018 average rent in the Seattle area rose 69% while inflation in the same region rose just over 20%.
This is a statistic that came up time and again Monday night at City Hall as Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant released a draft of her controversial rent control proposal that would tie increased rents to the rate of inflation.
“That’s unjust,” Rev. Angela Ying, senior pastor at Bethany United Church of Christ, said at a press conference before the hearing after citing the stat. “That is just plain unjust.”
The unveiling came at a council committee meeting her office has been planning for months as the incumbent’s bid for reelection has made rent control a rallying cry. No other committee members or city council members attended the Monday night special session.
Earlier on Monday, Sawant told CHS she was prepared for a hard fight over rent control.
“It’s going to be hard, it’s not going to be easy,” Sawant said, there will be “some vicious opposition.”
“We have to prepare ourselves for that.”
But Sawant pointed to the “wide range of support we have for rent control” that she says is especially strengthened by many “small landlords” who support more controls “because they don’t gouge their renters.”
Sawant’s universal rent control legislation would link the maximum rent increase to the inflation rate for urban wage earners and clerical workers, which was 3.4% last year in the greater Seattle area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Sawant says the measure is free of corporate loopholes.
All residential homes would be covered under the proposal, no matter the type of unit or the date of construction, unlike some rent control laws in other places.
The bill looks to avoid vacancy decontrol, which can allow landlords to sharply increase rents when the current tenant vacates their home. Sawant argues that this “decreases the overall stock of rent-controlled and affordable housing, and creates a perverse incentive for landlords to evict tenants.”
Additionally, if a landlord demolishes rental units to build newer homes, they must replace the homes at the previous rent at a one-to-one ratio. Extra units, beyond the one-to-one requirement, may start at any rent but would then be subject to rent control going forward. Devin Silvernail of the Seattle Renters’ Commission called this aspect of the bill Mandatory Housing Affordability “on steroids.”
Others were not as happy with what Sawant introduced Monday at an evening hearing of the council’s Human Services, Equitable Development, and Renter Rights Committee, which the Socialist Alternative council member chairs.
“I’m a renter and this law scares the s*** out of me,” Logan Bowers, a pot entrepreneur who failed in his bid to challenge Sawant in this year’s election, said on Twitter. “If it ever got beyond a publicly funded campaign event, it’d basically guarantee the duplex unit I rent would be sold as owner-occupied housing before the law took effect and I’d be homeless.”
What her colleagues on the current council might have to say about the legislation unveiled Monday night is yet to be seen. Sawant was the only member of the committee in attendance Monday.
Prior to the unveiling, CHS reported on Sawant’s long march to forming this rent control legislation and what both critics and proponents of rent control can argue about its potential impact on Seattle.
Egan Orion told CHS he thinks Oregon’s rent control (though he calls it “stabilization”), which limits rent increases to 7% annually plus inflation and exempts new construction for 15 years, would be a “more balanced remedy” than Sawant’s plan.
UPDATE 9/26/19: Hours before a debate slated for Thursday night at Town Hall, Orion’s campaign released a statement on Sawant’s proposal:
“Councilmember Sawant’s proposed rent control plan – released six weeks before the election after six years of talking about it – is unworkable. Not only is it illegal under state law, but it’s also not a solution to the issues at hand. At a time where we need thousands of new housing units, this plan would effectively reduce private development to zero.
“I’ve proposed immediate and long term solutions to address our affordable housing crisis, including bold and evidence-backed rent stabilization measures as well as an emergency fund and robust legal resources to keep people in the housing they already have. And, not only are my proposals ambitious, but they’re also realistic – we could actually get them done without punishing renters, small landlords, and private developers. On the City Council, I’ll build coalitions across government and with nonprofits, renters, and developers to fight for real, meaningful efforts to address housing affordability.”
Others point at California’s attempts at solving soaring rents in which yearly rent increases over the next decade will be limited to 5% plus inflation.
Monday night, Sawant expressed interest in working with “small landlords” to improve the bill and stressed that this was only draft legislation.
The bill would also create a rent control board empowered to decide on exemptions to rent control limits in the case of emergencies like natural disasters that cause financial hardship for the building owner. There would be a board made up of five renters and one landlord in each council district appointed by that district’s council member and then elected by the voters starting four years after the bill’s final passage
In the case of rent control avoidance, landlords would have to return triple what they overcharged tenants plus 12% interest as well as cover the cost of any damages like eviction fees.
Sawant staff member Ted Virdone said Monday that these enforcement provisions should be developed over time.
Sawant announced her rent control ordinance in mid-April and her office held a raucous rally in support of the proposal on Capitol Hill in July that the council member did not attend due to ethical concerns about participating in a political rally after ballots had dropped for the August primary. Sawant said Monday that her rent control petition has over 12,000 signatures.
In an early April letter to the council, the Seattle Renters’ Commission urged the body to implement rent control legislation that would be effective pending a lift on the state’s ban on the practice passed in 1981.
The council passed a resolution in 2015 pushing Olympia to allow local governments to implement their own rent control policies.
Rep. Nicole Macri, a Democrat representing Capitol Hill who works for the homelessness services nonprofit Downtown Emergency Service Center, told CHS in April that she isn’t sure there is a path in the Legislature for lifting the statewide ban.
“Maybe those corporate politicians in Olympia didn’t do anything for us the last 40 years, maybe sometime in the next 40 years they will do something,” Sawant said Monday. “We refuse to wait because we don’t believe that they will act, certainly not without the pressure of a movement.”
A bill to repeal the ban in 2018 received a public hearing in the state House, but failed to make it out of committee. Meanwhile, other states, like Oregon, California, and New York, have passed state-wide rent control measures recently.
“Thankfully, we don’t have to be the first ones this time,” Sawant said, referring to the $15 minimum wage effort she spearheaded in the city. “We have a powerful example from multiple states to follow and I have no doubt in my mind that we will be able to win a historic victory in Seattle, as well.”
Sawant tells CHS she expects rent control’s opposition will follow a similar path to past causes like the $15 minimum wage.
“When we first start building the fight, pundits will tell us it is impossible,” she said Monday afternoon. “Try and pull out every trick out of their pocket. Then forced to concede, then, they will say we are doing this voluntarily, out of the goodness of our hearts.”
From here, Sawant’s sights are turning to the crafting of the city’s 2020 budget and the November election. Staffers for Sawant handed out flyers promoting an October 3rd hearing at City Hall to “speak out for affordable housing” and a People’s Budget town hall five days later.