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Rent control goes up for debate in Seattle

As Seattle's rental rates grow along with the population, some are asking if rent control is a solution. (File photo)
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Local minds gathered to go head-to-head over the issue of rent control in Seattle.

The debate attracted nearly 800 people to city hall to discuss if rent control could be an answer to Seattle’s housing woes.

As the city’s population grows, so is its rental rates, causing many long-time residents to leave town. Rent control has been promoted by some Seattle officials, such as council members Kshama Sawant and Nick Lacata.

Related: Seattle mayor goes after developers in affordable housing plan

Both council members went up against Republican State Representative Matt Manweller of Ellensburg and development lobbyist Roger Valdez on July 20 to debate the merits of rent control.

“Rent control opens up new possibilities,” Licata said, echoing Sawant’s approval of the idea.

But Manweller and Valdez couldn’t disagree more with the sentiment put forth by Sawant and Licata.

Manweller argued that Seattle’s problem is supply, not price. If more housing was available &#8212 less single-family homes and more apartments &#8212 then prices wouldn’t rise so dramatically and more people could afford to live in Seattle, according to the Republican.

“If you had only 1,000 Prii [plural of Prius] in the City of Seattle, and they were super expensive, and you came along and said ‘I’m going to limit how much you can sell a Prius for to $5,000. Would that create more Prius’? Would that create more cars?” Manweller asked. “So please, somebody on my right &#8212 and I say that euphemistically &#8212 somebody on my right explain to me how limiting the cost of apartments will lead to more apartments. Mr. Licata just said the problem is that we don’t have enough apartments. So how will limiting the price of them create more of them?”

Council member Sawant noted that dynamics of Seattle, or any large city are far from what works in smaller, rural towns like Manweller’s Ellensburg.

“Obviously gouging happens in booming cities like Seattle, not in rural areas like Ellensburg,” Sawant said.

Manweller didn’t see any difference, However. He countered that Ellensburg is a town with 8,000 people, but swells with 10,000 students each year, all of whom need housing.

“We did something novel in Ellensburg, we built 10,000 additional apartments and now we don’t have a rental crisis, or a housing crisis or a price crisis,” Manweller said.

“It’s something you might want to consider in Seattle,” he said.

But pro-rent control representatives maintained that some sort of controls need to be put into place to secure the rental market for Seattle consumers.

“The fact that we have 700-800 people here, eagerly wanting to hear about rent control, facing skyrocketing rents, tells me this is a valid debate to have,” Sawant said. “And by the way, only in 2008, the voters in California with a whopping majority of 61 percent voted to keep rent control in the state of California.”

KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross did some digging on how California relates to the rent control discussion. He found that California’s average rent is $1,240, which is 50 percent higher than the rest of the country, according to the state’s own estimates.

Rent control is illegal in Washington by state law. If Seattle does want to pursue the issue, it will have to take it up at the state level first, before making any local rent regulations.

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