Seattle Councilmember Sawant stresses passage of rent control bills before her final term ends

Jul 17, 2023, 8:35 AM | Updated: 8:52 am

Sawant rent control...

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

(City of Seattle)

Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant is leading another push for city-wide rent control after recently introducing a bill, Council Bill 120606, that would cap maximum rate increases based on the rate of inflation.

The bill would only go into effect if Washington’s statewide ban on rent control — passed in 1981 — is lifted.

Sawant advocating for rent control

“Seattle is in the throes of a stunning and unprecedented affordable housing and homelessness crisis,” Sawant wrote on the Seattle County Council website in response to Seattle’s housing crisis. “Skyrocketing rents are driving working-class households, communities of color, seniors, and students out of Seattle. The for-profit market, dominated by real estate speculators, has utterly failed us.”

Sawant, citing a 2018 Seattle Times story, noted rent in Seattle increased by 69% from 2010-2018. But inflation only increased by 20.3% over that same time frame, according to her office.

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“The Democratic Party currently has a majority in the Governor’s mansion. Yet, they did not even propose to lift the ban on rent control this legislative session,” Sawant wrote on the council website on rent control. “There is nothing blocking the state government from lifting that ban today, except that the Democratic establishment is beholden to corporate real estate interests.”

At a special public hearing Wednesday night, dozens of renters voiced their support for the measure.

“We have the data. We know that the No. 1 cause of homelessness is cost of living,” social worker Riley Retta said during public comment, according to KIRO Newsradio. “We know that once rent passes 30% of household income, a tenant’s risk of homelessness skyrockets.”

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District rent control boards and a rent control commission would be created and installed as a result of the bill to determine any exceptions to the rent cap. The commission and boards will be made up of tenants and landlords. New rental housing units that do not replace old units would be exempted from the maximum, according to CB 120606, but only initially.

Sawant has served on the city council since 2013, becoming the longest active-serving council member in the process. After surviving a recall election and multiple come-from-behind city council races, Sawant announced she will not seek re-election, with her term ending this December. Sawant will instead refocus her time and resources toward a new national effort: Workers Strike Back.

Rent control in another US city: Did it succeed in San Francisco?

San Francisco passed its original rent control ordinance in 1979, limiting rent increases at buildings with five or more units occupied to 60% of inflation. The rent control ordinance expanded in 1994 to buildings of one to four units.

Economist Rebecca Diamond was part of a 2019 study from Stanford that found within San Francisco, in the long run, rent control actually drove up rents because it led a number of landlords to convert their housing to other uses and it reduced the supply of rental units.

“Contrary to popular myth, rent control in San Francisco — or any other city that has had it — has been a veritable lifeline for the many tenants who would have been completely priced out of the city,” Sawant wrote. “The problem facing rent-controlled cities in California is not rent control, but the destructive statewide Costa-Hawkins Act of 1995, by Democratic Senator Jim Costa and Republican Assemblymember Phil Hawkins, which introduced insidious corporate loopholes and strangled California cities from passing strong rent control laws.”

Diamond revealed in the study San Francisco’s rent control ordinance allows landlords to reset rents to market rates for a new tenant, a policy known as vacancy decontrol, which gives landlords an incentive to get rid of rent-controlled tenants when rents started to rise quickly.

“Vacancy decontrol allows landlords to abandon rent control and go back to market-rate rent when the current resident of a unit moves. This means the stock of housing under rent control steadily dwindles. When rent control is not broadly applied, the majority of a city’s tenants aren’t able to obtain rent-controlled homes.”

San Francisco introduced vacancy decontrol through the Costa-Hawkins Act.

The Seattle City Council is expected to vote on the rent control legislation on July 21.

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Seattle Councilmember Sawant stresses passage of rent control bills before her final term ends