Jess Spear, candidate for the state house in Seattles 43rd District, argues: If private companies won’t build affordable housing, then society has an obligation to meet that need.
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  • Jess Spear, candidate for the state house in Seattle's 43rd District, argues: "If private companies won’t build affordable housing, then society has an obligation to meet that need."

Rents are skyrocketing across the city. It's not just the perception of frustrated Capitol Hill renters—Seattle ranked number one in the country in rising rents last year. In spite of a construction boom in high-end apartments, this past quarter saw a continuation of the trend. We’re told it’s because there still aren’t enough units. The demand is high, the supply is low, ergo the price will rise—just simple economics.

Yet the biggest increase in rents was seen in Ballard, where the supply doubled over the last six years and the vacancy rate is highest in the city. The “if you build it, they will come (and rent will fall)” ethic is lining the pockets of wealthy developers, but hasn't helped the priced-out majority of Seattle area renters.

Affordability is not just a function of supply. It’s a function of the kind of supply that’s available. Market forces will tend to invest in high-end housing first, as this type of housing is the most profitable for developers. Research shows that new construction of expensive apartments doesn't generate affordable housing, and some experts think it may even be pushing rents higher. That’s because developers are replacing and renovating affordable units, with the new units renting for $2,200/month.

Seattle urgently needs to stabilize rents. Rent control is a mechanism that limits the amount landlords can raise rent by tying it to inflation. This allows for landlords to maintain properties and keep pace with inflation, while preventing big developers from exploiting the basic need for housing by charging astronomical rates. High rents are also one of biggest obstacles faced by small business owners.

Some point to shortcomings of rent control in New York City or San Francisco as reasons not to enact rent control in Seattle. Both city's rent control laws do in fact have real weaknesses, but the key problem is that their implementations are very limited and have been further undermined over the past few decades. By limiting rent control to certain units or buildings, rent controlled units predictably become a scarce commodity with all the consequences associated with that, such as hoarding, nepotism, etc. Nonetheless, rent control in New York and San Francisco still provides desperately needed affordable housing for workers who would otherwise be forced out of the city. In Seattle, we need rental caps to be broadly implemented across the city.

Others claim rent control would stop development by removing the incentive to build. In reality, rental caps will no more stop development than the $15 minimum wage will drive small businesses out of Seattle (as business associations and other opponents of $15 argued over the past year). But just like the $15 minimum wage, rent control is not a silver bullet—it’s a necessary measure to immediately address out-of-control housing costs.

Housing is a human right. If private companies won’t build affordable housing then society has an obligation to meet that need. Local and state government can and should build significantly more high-quality housing which can be rented at below market rates to recover the construction costs and maintenance and create good-paying union jobs.

For politicians unwilling to act on rent control, where are they on even more basic means of addressing high housing costs, such as increasing developer fees, inclusionary zoning, and strengthening and enforcing tenants and homeowner’s rights? Donations from giant real estate developers and landlords like Paul Allen’s Vulcan might explain their silence.

The first step in winning rent control would be to remove the anti-democratic, 1981 state ban on rent control. We don’t need a nanny state protecting Seattle or other cities from setting our own local laws according to local needs. I look forward to a vigorous debate in the state house with the Republicans defending big government in opposition to local municipal rights.

The movement for a $15 minimum wage and Kshama Sawant's election campaign provide an example of exactly the kind of grassroots effort needed to force this issue onto the table. Outrageous and ever-increasing rents have created a sense of boiling anger among working people all over the city. A campaign for rent control combined with the unseating of the most powerful Democrat in the legislature can put huge pressure on Olympia to stand aside, and for Seattle government to take action.

Jess Spear is a climate scientist and Socialist Alternative member running for State House in Seattle's 43rd District against Speaker Frank Chopp.