Councilmember Sawant stirs rent control debate in Seattle

Kshama Sawant, the three-term Seattle council member who’s leaving office in December, is taking aim at her biggest outstanding goal: citywide residential rent control.

Sawant, the council’s senior member and only socialist, has proposed a bill that would cap residential rent increases at the annual rate of inflation, without exception for building type or neighborhood, in an attempt at prohibiting exorbitant rent hikes.

“We are here because a strong majority of Seattle supports strong rent control — powerful, citywide rent control that’s free of corporate loopholes,” Sawant said at a news conference before a community meeting to discuss the legislation Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

According to data from the American Community Survey cited in a council central staff memo in June, the median Seattle rent increased by 15% between 2017 and 2021, from $1,555 to $1,787. Between 2010 and 2020, the average change in rent for the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area was 91.8%.

“And that’s the quote-unquote, ‘normal’ process of capitalism, which is screwing over workers and renters and the vast majority of our society,” Sawant said, also noting a 2022 ProPublica report and subsequent lawsuits that accuse many of the country’s largest landlords of price gouging and “colluding” to fix the rental market through software made by companies such as RealPage.

But whatever the cause, Sawant and her supporters — and more than 70% of Washingtonians polled in a 2020 Washington Community Action Network and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey — think that some form of rent stabilization is needed to prevent the city and state’s rising housing crisis from worsening.

About 100 supporters showed up last Wednesday to join Sawant in her demand for more affordable rent, citing their own struggles to make ends meet, frequent moves to avoid steep increases, and general inability to afford housing in Seattle. 

“When rent goes up, homelessness goes up. And when homelessness goes up, the deaths go up,” Anitra Freeman, a Seattle resident, said at the council’s Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee, which Sawant chairs. 

“It is outrageous when I learn that landlords are organizing to keep the rent high,” Freeman added. “Landlords are killing us. We have to organize to lower the rent.”

Even if it passed in Seattle, Sawant’s rent control bill would be a so-called “trigger law,” meaning it couldn’t be enforced because of a 1981 state law preempting rent control.

Landlords flee in ‘23

Few landlords attended the committee meeting, but those who did said a cap on rent increases would push smaller rental property owners out of town by making the business unlucrative.

“The reason small landlords like me are selling out to big corporations is because of policies like this,” Penton Mott, a self-described “carbon-neutral housing provider,” said Wednesday, noting that in cities like New York City and San Francisco, rent control has been blamed for reductions in housing stock. 

“What this bill proposes would be catastrophic for the housing market in Seattle,” Sean Flynn, president and executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, said Friday.

According to Flynn, who represents so-called “mom and pop” landlords, with an average of about two units each, if landlords cannot control rent rates, they will not be able to turn a justifiable profit to invest back into properties in Seattle. Or worse, he says, some may not be able to maintain the cost of homeownership, at all.

“It’s a failure of simple economics,” Flynn said. “It’s expensive to maintain a house and developers and financiers will reconsider building in Seattle.” 

Flynn and Ryan Makinster, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents larger property companies, both noted Friday that the city of Seattle estimates a need for 95,000 homes over the next 20 years to address demand.

“And rent control will have a chilling effect on development,” Makinster said, noting that “capital is fluid” and investors will develop in areas where they can turn a higher profit and avoid regulation.

The answer, they suggest, is increased government subsidies and housing vouchers to help struggling tenants pay market-rate rents, rather than restricting that market rate.

Otherwise, Flynn said, the government is treating housing differently than any other industry, including those necessary for survival.

“The government gives food stamps, right? They don’t say farmers can only charge $1 for an apple,” Flynn said, adding that if housing is a human right, so is food. “No one would be a farmer and there would be a lack of supply, because who’s going to do that work for free?”

Sawant’s proposed bill does not cap rent at a specific percentage, but is responsive to the annual rate of inflation. That formula, she says, allows landlords to participate in the economy and only impacts those who are taking advantage of tenants.

“If you are a landlord who is not gouging your tenants, you won’t be affected by this rent control bill,” Sawant said Thursday, noting that the bill would only cut profits for landlords who increase rent above inflation.

Her bill also establishes a 42-member board — composed of five tenants and one landlord from each of seven council districts — that would hear appeals for exemptions on a case-by-case basis, allowing landlords certain additional rent increases in the event of an emergency expense. 

“But even there, I just don’t foresee how that [exemption] could justify increasing rents to a punitive level, you know, to the point where it causes a burden for the tenants,” Sawant explained.

Still, Flynn argues that the city should focus on “building a boatload of housing,” noting that his members have been using the tagline, “landlords flee in ‘23,” to threaten departure if the city passes further restrictions.

Seattle can’t do it alone

This year, state Democratic lawmakers introduced a pair of bills: one to remove the preemption law passed in 1981 and one to enact a milder version of rent control statewide. But they were quelled by Republicans and housing industry lobbyists who threatened the bills with hundreds of amendments and effective filibustering, so neither saw a vote outside of committee.

Sawant emailed several members of the state Legislature on July 7 to garner support for repealing the preemption law, which she said the state had “gifted” to the “wealthy landlord lobby.”

In a reply, Rep. Gerry Pollet, a Democrat who sponsored the effort to repeal preemption, chided Sawant for not being more supportive of state efforts.

“If you were aware of our work to end the preemption of rent control, your email might have appropriately begun by saying that you appreciate the effort and that you are introducing legislation to control rents whenever preemption ends,” Pollet wrote on July 7.

On Friday, Pollet said the decision to back off of the preemption repeal was made at the will of tenant and affordable housing advocates who thought it was better to establish some sort of rent control statewide instead of just repealing the ban and leaving it to cities.

Pollet says a statewide version would have given landlords more leniency to increase rent and cover the cost of improvements and maintenance, such as adding air conditioning or similar pricey upgrades.

“Then, as usual, [Sawant] sends an email that implies that if you don’t support [her] version of rent control for Seattle, they’re going to label you as a tool of corporate landlords,” Pollet said.

Sawant reamed the Democrat-controlled state Legislature last week for not lifting the ban, likening it to congressional Democrats failing to codify into law abortion rights granted in the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in the nearly 50 years from when the decision was made to when it was overturned last year.

Pollet laughed at the comparison and said that since Washington Democrats actually did protect abortion rights, Sawant “had to pick on something else.”

“This is a significant many-year-long organizing effort,” Pollet said, noting that the state still “stands a chance at repealing preemption.” 

While Sawant’s aggressive community mobilizing has worked on some major issues during her nine-year run, including passing a $15 minimum wage in Seattle and smaller protections for renters, there is some concern, even among those who support rent control, that her push on rent control could poison the issue in Olympia.

Rep. Nicole Macri, a state Democrat who also represents Seattle in Olympia, sponsored a version of the statewide rent control bill this spring that capped rent increases at the rate of inflation or 3%, whichever is higher, and barred increases from exceeding 7%, but would have allowed more exemptions for upgrades and newer buildings.

Even as a proponent of rent control, Macri ran afoul of Sawant when she called the exchange between Sawant and Pollet “actually pretty funny” in an interview with The Stranger. Sawant and supporters publicly lambasted Macri for the comment during the Wednesday news conference. 

“There is nothing ‘funny’ or ‘pretty funny’ about the crisis we are facing as renters and working people,” Sawant said. 

Macri said she meant the exchange between Pollet and Sawant was funny, and noted her support of rent control more generally in an interview Friday. 

“It is equally contentious to tax policy and gun policy,” Macri said of rent control, noting that the state’s assault weapons ban took about a decade to pass, despite Democratic control.

The policy’s fate on the City Council is also unclear as it heads to another committee hearing Friday.

District 2 Councilmember Tammy Morales, who sits on the Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee, said she generally supports rent control and advocated for a statewide repeal, while noting her office is working on permanent commercial rent control legislation.

“Any attempt to legalize rent control in Seattle is important and knowing that a repeal at the state level is as likely as full legalization, I support any attempt to bring rent control to Seattle and will continue to advocate at the state level for full legalization,” Morales wrote Friday.

As most committee members have stayed quiet on the proposal, even Morales, the most likely friendly vote for Sawant’s version of rent control, emphasized the need to work with the state. 

Any discourse about the Seattle bill could have a ripple effect in the state, Macri said.

“Strong mobilizing out of Seattle can really help push a progressive issue in Olympia,” Macri said, noting that the state’s paid family leave bill was largely driven by demand in the city. 

But Macri also worries that Sawant’s aggression around the issue could be used as fodder for landlords and others who oppose a more moderate statewide approach.

“The term ‘Sawant-style rent control’ is a term I hear when I’m talking with landlord lobbyists in Olympia,” Macri said.

“Councilmember Sawant is my council member and she’s not some villain. She’s a real person who represents me at council,” Macri added. “But her persona has become a sort of villain to instill fear in Olympia.”

Even if the bill fails, Sawant believes that her efforts will put pressure on the council and state Democrats to vote on rent control.

“It’s a question of the balance of power,” Sawant explained. 

“If you’re able to build enough pressure on these shameful Democrats to actually do something, then we will win. And if we don’t, then what we will have done is exposed the Democratic Party in a thorough manner.”

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Mike McNamara

Mike McNamara

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