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Battered rent control resolution crawls its way to the full council

Kshama Sawant wants colleagues to take a public stand on rent control. Credit: Allyce Andrew

Although a resolution in support of lifting the statewide ban on rent control is not dead, its future isn’t bright, either. The Seattle City Council’s Housing, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee evenly split Thursday on supporting the largely symbolic measure, which means it will go to the full council in two weeks.

And, under council rules, it will be tagged with a recommendation against its approval.

Rent control, a broad term for the regulation of rents even on privately owned developments, has been banned in Washington state since 1981. But cries to lift that ban have grown louder lately, in step with the skyrocketing rents in Seattle.

Leading that cry have been Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata, although Sawant has arguably taken to the issue with more vigor — her sequel to the $15 minimum wage fight of 2014. The two jointly introduced the resolution last June.

Rent control has become one of those explosive issues in Seattle. Proponents like Sawant seem to have labeled it as the next big initiative for a progressive city. Although Sawant has expressed support for other recent housing recommendations, she sees the package of proposals backed by the Mayor’s Office as falling short. Rent control is her strategy to fill the gap.

Opponents, most visibly Roger Valdez, director of pro-development Smart Growth Seattle, worry that regulating rents would constrict development at a time when Seattle has plenty of demand, but not enough supply.

The resolution has never had an easy road. As chair of the housing committee, Councilmember John Okamoto delayed introducing the measure while the mayor’s housing task force finalized its recommendations. Supporters worried for a time that the resolution would never see the light, a fear Okamoto calmed only when he promised a hearing for this month.

The committee meeting Thursday overflowed with people waving red signs that read “Rent is out of control.” Speakers during the public comment percent were cheered as they spoke in favor of the resolution, hissed when they opposed. Many in the crowd wore Sawant re-election paraphernalia.

Both Sawant and Licata clearly knew the resolution was up against fierce skepticism from their fellow council members. Licata chose to emphasize the importance of the city having the ability to control its own fate, conscious of the fact that a majority of the current Seattle City Council would not, in the end, support anything resembling rent control. “We are not giving a stamp of approval to move forward with rent control,” he said. “What we’re asking for is, ‘let’s have a sensible open discussion.’ [The ban] denies us the ability to use various tools.”

Sawant, on the other hand, dove much more deeply into the housing weeds, equipped with a PowerPoint filled with graphics and statistics outlining the state of housing in Seattle.

Councilmembers Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen dangled words of hope in front of Licata, Sawant and fellow rent-control resolution supporter Councilmember Mike O’Brien. Godden said she was initially in support of the resolution, but decided instead that the city should focus its energy on the recommendations from the mayor’s housing committee and the funding mechanisms put forward there. She voted no.

In a sharp barb against Sawant, Rasmussen said, “Councilmember Licata had me, but when I hear Councilmember Sawant argue for rent control, it gives me pause.” Eventually, he too voted no.

After a testy exchange in which Sawant poked at Okamoto for an op-ed in the Seattle Times against rent control, he also voted against the resolution, resulting in a 3-3 tie.

When a measure is split in that way, it still moves on to the full council, but must wait an extra week, according to the rules for city council, to “allow Councilmembers time to review the report.” In a tie, the recommendation to the full council is that of the chair. In this case, that is Okamoto, who is opposed.

With the opposition of Godden, Rasmussen and Okamoto, the resolution is unlikely to pass the full council. If indeed it fails, Sawant may be out of legislative options. That is, until a new council take its seat in January — assuming Sawant wins re-election and is there to rejoin the fight.

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