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Supporters pack City Hall as Sawant unveils Seattle rent control proposal

Councilmember Kshama Sawant continues her push for rent control. (City of Seattle)

Is Seattle rent control the answer to the affordable housing crisis? Councilmember Kshama Sawant thinks so and has a local proposal to get it done. There’s just one problem: Washington state law.

Sawant has been pushing rent control for years and it’s a central message in her re-election campaign.

Local leaders from Seattle to Spokane eye rent control

On Monday, dozens of supporters packed City Hall as she unveiled her Seattle rent control proposal during an evening meeting of Human Services, Equitable Development, and Renter Rights Committee.

There are multiple rent control models across the country and Sawant’s proposal is among the strongest when it comes to protecting tenants.

  • It caps annual rent control increases at the rate of inflation, generally 2 or 3 percent.
  • Many other places with rent control laws limit it to certain types of housing or housing built after a certain date, but Sawant’s plan would apply to essentially all housing, with exceptions for short term rentals, hotels and motels, emergency shelters or housing rented to a family member of the landlord.
  • It also does not allow landlords to hike the rent if a tenant moves out. Only one increase a year is allowed.
  • There are additional requirements in the proposal for any redevelopments to replace affordable units, for every one lost one must be added to maintain supply.

Landlords who violate the rules would have to revise the rent back to what it is allowed, give the tenant a refund of triple the amount of whatever was overcharged plus interest (12 percent). And the violating landlord would have to fix and any negative impacts on the renter from the overcharging, like eviction proceedings, late fees, collections or credit reports and hits to their rental history among others.

“Rent control has to be part of a comprehensive policy program that has to include a major expansion of publicly-owned social housing by taxing the wealthy,” Sawant said at Monday’s meeting, adding it was not an either-or situation.

“We have to win all these policies because our city is really lopsided,” she said. “It’s so wealthy on the one hand and on the other hand so many of us are suffering and so that has to end and rent control has to be part of it.”

Seattle rent control

Sawant and supporters gathered 12,000 petition signatures supporting the rent control effort, many who spoke at Monday’s committee hearing.

“Rent takes s much of our paycheck,” one supporter said during public comment.

“Many of us are just one paycheck away from losing everything,” said another.

“If we want to solve the problem of poverty we have to start with rent control,” one woman added.

Others criticized the rest of the council members for not attending the committee meeting on such a critical issue.

“The way the city council chooses to act on rent control will show you really care about, the companies that profit off raising the cost of our rent or the working people of Seattle,” said one supporter.

A couple of landlords showed up at the meeting, neither supported rent control, but both stressed they cared deeply about their tenants.

“Rents are way too high today I’m scared for my tenants,” said one of the landlords, stressing that that it is a symptom of the larger problem – the death of the middle class over the past several decades, as he strongly called for taxing big business to address the housing crisis.

Landlord Marilyn Yim owns a triplex and rents out two of the units to help cover the mortgage so she and her family can afford to live in Seattle.

“Having rental units has helped us to pay the mortgage, but it just helps pay the mortgage,” she said in a phone interview. “Right now we’re able to make it work, we’re able to keep our home up to a level or repair and maintenance that we think is good quality for us and for the tenants that we rent to.”

“We’re concerned that rent control is going to make that difficult or impossible and force us to make some difficult choices,” Yim added.

She says landlords are already dealing with the influx of new city and state eviction reform laws and other tenant protections.

“This is not my day job, this [being a landlord] is just something that we’re doing to make housing work for us,” Yim stressed.

“So keeping up with all of these changes to laws that are adding additional costs, additional risk to us, it’s really making it unsustainable for us small landlords to continue, or for someone to even consider entering the rental market to maybe start out being a small landlord,” Yim said.

Those tough choices could include getting out of the landlord game altogether depending on how things shake out.

Yim says the flurry of new and soon-to-be landlord tenant laws coming from the city and the state, including eviction reform have already made it tough on small mom and pop’s like hers.

She and other critics point to studies like this one out of Stanford this year as evidence that rent control is a failed policy because it discourages development and drives away landlords, only making the affordable housing crisis worse by further reducing supply.

At the same time supporters cite a 2018 study out of University of California, Berkeley that suggests rent control paired with other housing policies can solve the affordable housing crisis as evidence that rent control works.

Sawant argues that research says rent control can help so long as it is applied evenly, unlike cities like San Francisco where housing built after 1979 is exempt from rent control, which has led to inequity.

How Oregon’s approach to rent control could be a blueprint for Seattle

Sawant called on supporters to continue to reach and help build up the movement, and also called on landlords, especially small mom and pop operations like Yim’s, to reach out and meet with her to share any concerns they have.

The city council is not likely to take the measure up until December after its budget work is wrapped up.

Should Sawant’s Seattle rent control proposal pass, it would only take effect if the state Legislature eventually lifts the statewide ban on rent control. There is a chance that could happen.

Seattle Democratic Rep. Nicole Macri said earlier this year that she was examining rent control in other cities. She said she wanted to see how it works and whether there is a successful model to borrow from to create a bill in Olympia next session.

However, Democratic State Senator Patty Kuderer  said earlier this year that she was not likely to support lifting the rent control ban and would instead focus on getting a bill passed to require just cause evictions. Kuderer, Macri and others previously led the effort to reform the state’s eviction laws and add new tenant protections.

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