Testy: City Council tensions rise as rent control issue returns

By David Kroman
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle City Council, as it is now

By David Kroman

Rising political tensions came to the surface on Monday as City Council members discussed housing issues.

With Kshama Sawant still energized by the rejection of a bill that seemed aimed at limiting her political activities at City Hall, she and fellow Councilmember Nick Licata introduced a resolution Monday supporting the lifting the statewide ban on rent control.

The question of housing seems to be the one that is the quickest to provoke tensions at City Hall, where some are eager for the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee to unveil its recommendations, likely next month.

The council's meeting Monday was its first since Thursday's decision by the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission to reject a bill, co-sponsored by Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, that would have forbidden the linking of town hall-style discussions sponsored by council members and political campaigning. The bill, according to Rasmussen, was to clarify the rules around where and when an elected official can campaign. Although it wasn’t officially acknowledged earlier, the bill was in response to a rent control forum hosted by council members Sawant and Nick Licata. “I didn’t go,” said Rasmussen, “but people felt that the event had overstepped what is allowed in the ethics and elections law.”

On Monday, Sawant called the legislation unconstitutional and politically motivated. “They want to attack the council member,” she said, referring to herself, “who is bringing an urgency to these social justice issues rather than sitting down to answer these questions.”

Murray adviser David Mendoza defended the bill before the SEEC, but was buried with skepticism from the commissioners, who, by the end of the meeting, were openly joking about the number of unanswered questions in the legislation. “Once you set up a structure like this,” said Commissioner Bill Sherman, “you’re in the business of investigating every event.” They rejected it 6-0.

The bill is something of a Rorschach test for elected officials, each viewing its purpose and its subsequent rejection as he sees fit. Sawant celebrated the SEEC’s decision, thanking them for rejecting the “ill-advised and politically motivated legislation.”

However, Murray’s Communication Director Viet Shelton seemed to frame it as more of a language issue, hinting that future drafts are to come. “The point of the proposed legislation,” he said in e-mail, “was to clarify any perceived confusion or lack of clarity on how to conduct city business by this standard. We are eager to reach out and work with stakeholders to revise the language to get it to a place that everyone is comfortable with.”

Rasmussen's remarks, on the other hand, seemed to acknowledge that the bill was specifically written for Councilmember Sawant, and he was apparently satisfied she’d learned her lesson. “It was felt,” he said, “that we need to make it really clear that you cannot use public resources for your campaign. She said she understands that now, so perhaps we don’t need to change our ethics and elections law.”

In virtually the same breath that Sawant celebrated the SEEC’s ruling, she also introduced the resolution demanding Olympia repeal the statewide ban on rent control. She said the resolution was not intentionally timed with the SEEC ruling, but said the two were connected. It was, after all, at the town hall meeting that Sawant and Licata first introduced this resolution. The resolution, she said, came about “as a response to the overwhelming demand by the public of Seattle that they deal with the housing crisis.”

As rents skyrocket, rent control is about as polarizing a solution as at least one poll has shown Sawant to be as a politician who is either strongly embraced or rejected. Rent control or rent stabilization restricts how much landlords can charge tenants, and the effectiveness of such measures is is hotly debated amid mixed results in places like San Francisco and New York.

Rent control is forbidden in Washington state, something that could only be changed by the Legislature and governor. Sawant and Licata’s resolution would demand this ban be lifted, although that would not bring about any immediate controls. “The city,” said Councilmember Licata, “has never actually asked Olympia to look at this. I think it’s important that we get the ball rolling.”

Sawant has compared the rent control fight to the city’s $15 minimum wage battle. “What it will take to get this through,” she said, “is the same that it took to get $15 through.”

As he did with $15, the mayor has assembled a task force, HALA, to hack the affordable housing problem. But HALA, which is composed of both housing advocates and developers, has not shown signs of supporting rent control and Sawant has not shown signs of supporting HALA. “I have made it very clear,” she said, “we should not be waiting on an appointed body, which is half full of developers who are organically against what we’re trying to do. We need to move forward.”

The HALA committee could be an immediate barrier for Sawant and Licata’s resolution. Councilmember John Okamoto, chair of the committee that deals with housing issues, is waiting for HALA before moving forward with any of the council’s housing proposals. Last week, he tabled two housing ordinances proposed by Council President Tim Burgess, and it seems likely he will do the same with this resolution. “The issue isn’t piecemeal, so the solution can’t be piecemeal, either,” Okamoto said in a statement. Referring to HALA's expected proposals, he said, “The agenda will come to the Council’s Committee on Housing Affordability, Human Services, and Economic Resilience next month. …It is at that time that we can assess the impact and implications of their recommendations and any other proposals to address this daunting challenge.”

It’s also not clear that the rent contol resolution will pass, whenever it moves forward to the full council. Rasmussen said he supports giving cities the power to make their own decisions about rent control, but resisted sending a “whimsical” resolution to Olympia. Unless the resolution contains language that representatives from around the state could get behind, he said he didn’t think he’d support it.

The resolution would almost certainly get support from three council members – Sawant, Licata and Mike O’Brien. Councilmember Bruce Harrell said he also supports granting more control to local municipalities, so he could be on board, making the odds of picking up a needed fifth vote pretty good.

But if the resolution did fail, could that kill momentum for rent control as part of larger efforts for affordable housing? Sawant said no, it would only have consequences for the council member and their chances next November. Still, rent control’s got a long road ahead in the Legislature, even when Olympia isn’t locked in a budget battle.

In just the past two weeks, the housing issue has brought the mayor to respond directly to a Crosscut piece on Yesler Terrace, the Stranger to call Councilmember Burgess' housing ordinances "election year pandering," and, now, Sawant to trade shots with her colleagues and the mayor. The housing fight could be a bloody one for months to come.


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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.