The politics of rent control, Seattle-style

Crosscut archive image.

Kshama Sawant talks with members of the media about the $15 per hour minimum wage ordinance just after the council approved it in 2014.

A public discussion at City Hall on Thursday could signal a big topic of discussion in Seattle City Council races the rest of the year.

Rent control will be the topic at hand when Councilmember Kshama Sawant co-hosts an affordable housing town hall with Councilmember Nick Licata at 6 p.m.

The town hall, Sawant told Crosscut, will be used to introduce a non-binding resolution declaring support for rent control, also known as rent stabilization. “The affordable housing town hall is a place to start the conversation,” she said.

The event will also be a sort of de facto rally for Sawant's favorite candidates for appointment to fill Sally Clark's vacant council seat. Although all eight finalists were invited, only four will attend. They include Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute; Shelley Secrest, policy analyst for the Metropolitan Urban League; and Sharon Maeda, a union and Asian-American activist, each of whom Sawant said she supports as a possible appointee. Alec Stephens, a former Sound Transit executive, and political strategist Noel Frame will also attend, although she did not explicitly state her support for them.

Although Sawant denied any political posturing, the town hall could also serve to distance her from Mayor Ed Murray’s more developer-friendly Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda task force, as well as Sawant’s foremost political opponent for a District 3 seat. That's Metropolitan Urban League of Seattle President Pamela Banks, who has indicated skepticism about rent control.

“For the public,” said Sawant, “this is the most important thing to remember: This is an election year. Hold all candidates accountable. Ask them, Where do you stand on bold solutions to solve affordable housing?”

Those who support rent control, including Sawant, have an enormous obstacle blocking their path: a statewide ban. For Seattle to even consider it, the state Legislature would need to pass a measure allowing municipalities to decide for themselves.

Speaker of the House Frank Chopp said in last year’s election he would support lifting that ban, although no real effort was made in this year’s legislative session.

Rent control works to slow market prices, capping what landlords can charge. As Seattle housing prices skyrocket, Sawant says, rent control would bring prices under control and reduce gentrification into the suburbs.

The concern regarding rent stabilization is that it would slow all housing growth. Developers, largely motivated by increasing market rates, might hesitate to build new housing because their profits would be less. As Seattle continues to grow, lackluster housing development could be an issue.

The question of supply is part of every affordable housing conversation. On one end is the carrot: Seattle’s Multifamily Tax Exemption program provides property tax breaks to developments that dedicate 20 percent of units for affordable housing. On the other end is the stick: linkage fees, spearheaded by Councilmember Mike O’Brien, will be further considered in the coming months. Under that model, developers would be charged a larger per-square-foot fee if they don’t provide affordable housing.

Whoever fills Clark’s empty council seat will become the chair of the Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee. As the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda task force comes up with its plan to fulfill Murray’s 10-year goal of 30,000 new market-rate and 20,000 new affordable housing units, the new council member will be immediately thrust into the spotlight.

Clark did not support rent control. Will the new appointee hold course, a sort of Sally Clark fill-in until next fall, or will the incoming memeber take the position in a new, more radical direction?

It’s no surprise Sawant supports the latter.

Among the finalists, former Councilmember Jan Drago and former director of the Human Services Department John Okamoto likely represent the more conservative side of the equation. Okamoto told Crosscut he would remain committed to those who elected Clark if chosen to fill her seat.

Okamoto, Drago and David Moseley, formerly the head of Washington State Ferries, will not attend the event, which probably makes sense considering the questions posed in advance by Sawant: Do you support rent control? Do you support enacting the maximum legal linkage fee on developers? Do you support progressive taxation? In what will surely be an audience of Sawant supporters, “yes” answers will certainly be better received than “no.”

Beyond the council appointment, rent control looms as an issue in City Council campaigns this year, especially Sawant's. In 2013, Sawant was elected primarily on the platform of a $15 minimum wage. Is rent control version 2.0 of a campaign built around addressing income inequality?

Sawant has always favored rent control. She spoke of it in her successful 2013 campaign against former Councilmember Richard Conlin. But a resolution represents an official planting of the flag. “I talk to a lot of people,” she said, “and they tell me: I hope you’re going to fight for rent control next.”

Fellow Socialist Jess Spear took the gamble in her state House race against Chopp last fall, posting red flyers around Seattle reading “We Need Rent Control,” similar to Sawant’s “$15 Now” posters. But while Sawant went from winning 29 percent in her primary to defeating Conlin, Spear went from 19 percent against Chopp in the primary to 16 percent in the general election. One reason is that Chopp neutered Spear's case by also supporting lifting the ban. But in Sawant’s district, which is centered on Capitol Hill, rent control might gain more traction than the larger 43rd Legislative District.

It's not clear, though, that rent control resonates like $15, which targeted corporations like McDonald's. The $15 idea was new and Seattleites were clearly feeling experimental, having recently helped to legalize marijuana. There was not, and still is not, much data supporting or rejecting such a high minimum wage. But there was also little if any data to suggest that minimum wage hikes are likely to backfire significantly. Plus, Murray and other council members were motivated to support the $15 wage and make it happen.

Experience with rent control, on the other hand, has been extremely mixed elsewhere. Boston and Chicago gave up on it; New York City is down to only 27,000 rent controlled units from 2 million in 1950; and opponents in San Francisco tell ominous-sounding stories of slumlords and bribery.

Sawant is undeterred, arguing the housing crisis has reached a breaking point. “The big picture is rent is completely out of control,” she said. “The majority of people have already been priced out of the city or will very soon be priced out. If that’s our starting point, then it’s clear that it’s incumbent on us to address this problem.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.