Rent control supporters packed Seattle City Council chambers today but left with a disappointing result: A 3-3 split vote on a resolution asking the state legislature to lift the ban on rent control. The resolution now goes to the full city council, where it looks likely to fail.
At today's council meeting, Council Member Mike O'Brien joined the resolution's sponsors, Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata, in voting for it. (For those of you paying close attention, the resolution wasn't expected to get a committee vote until next week. That changed at today's meeting.)
The chair of the council's housing affordability committee and rent control skeptic John Okamoto voted no, as did Tom Rasmussen, who called the resolution a "distraction" from the city's other affordable housing work.
Neither of those votes came as a surprise. But the third vote did: Council Member Jean Godden, who flip-flopped from her earlier support of the resolution and lent a third vote to the opposition. Back when Godden was still in the running for reelection, she said in a candidate questionnaire about housing issues that she supported asking the state to lift the ban. "Yes. I will advocate for local municipality jurisdiction over implementing rent regulation," she wrote. "I believe that Seattle should make the choice about rent control."
Today, conveniently out of the running for her council seat, Godden said she has changed her mind. According to Godden, that's because the mayor's housing affordability committee didn't recommend rent control and she wants the council to focus on that committee's recommendations. (Wondering whether the mayor, who doesn't think rent control is realistic, asked her to show up for the vote, as he's done before? Veit Shelton, spokesperson for Mayor Ed Murray, told me no.)
Rasmussen and Okamoto echoed Godden's argument, saying the council should focus on the other housing work it has to do.
"If you want action now, this is not it," Rasmussen said.
Sawant argued the two were not mutually exclusive.
"If you don’t think rent control has merit," Sawant said, "passing this resolution does not in any way restrict your ability to simply advocate for the [Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, Committee] recommendations."
That didn't budge the three "no" votes, particularly Rasmussen, who said the language in the resolution went too far in supporting rent control as a policy, rather than just advocating that the state lift the ban. (I'll say it again because it's worth repeating: This is just a resolution asking the state legislature to consider doing something. It does not—cannot—actually create rent control in Seattle.)
Rasmussen said he isn't convinced rent control is a good policy, but the resolution is ”replete with statements that the impediment to fair housing is not having rent control."
The resolution includes statements like this:
WHEREAS, many other U.S. cities have preserved affordability and mitigated the fair housing impacts of rent increases through rent stabilization approaches, including some of the country's largest cities, like New York City, Newark, Washington, DC, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles; and
WHEREAS, to mitigate the segregative effects of high and increasing rental housing costs on residential diversity in Seattle, including the disproportionate displacement of people of color from the city and the replacement by new white residents, Seattle could similarly benefit from a rent stabilization ordinance or other provisions that regulate rent
Temporary council member Okamoto tried very hard to play the "I'm just filling in here" card. As the committee was approaching a vote, it looked like he wasn't going to comment on why he would vote one way or the other. When Licata asked him for his thoughts Okamoto said, "I'm not sure I have a lot of expertise [on this issue]." Sawant, who's never been a fan of Okamoto, reminded him that he must have at least enough expertise to write an anti-rent-control opinion piece in the Seattle Times. (We all know how much expertise that takes.)
So finally Okamoto commented, echoing Rasmussen and Godden about HALA and saying the state legislature should be focused on funding education (instead of rent control, presumably).
The three members we didn't hear from today are Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Bruce Harrell.
Burgess has said he doesn't support asking the state to lift the ban and Harrell has said he does. Will Harrell pull a Godden? Hard to say.
Bagshaw has dodged the question, but has—in the process of openly clashing with Sawant—expressed skepticism about rent control. So, even if she likes the idea of local control, she may make the same arguments Rasmussen made about the pro-rent-control language. It's hard to see her helping Sawant land a victory on this.
If Harrell and Burgess both stick to their positions, that's four "yes" votes (O'Brien, Licata, Sawant, Harrell) and four "no" votes (Okamoto, Rasmussen, Godden, Burgess). And that makes Bagshaw the swing vote. (I've reached out to Bagshaw and Harrell and will update this post if I hear back.)
Today's discussion largely followed the same talking points we've seen in this debate so far.
Licata and Sawant emphasized skyrocketing housing costs in the city causing rapid displacement, particularly of people of color and low-wage workers. They also reiterated the type of rent control they support: Not blanket caps, but a link between rents and inflation in an effort to curb dramatic rent increases. Sawant blamed the ineffective rent control policies critics often point to on developer and landlord influence in watering down or changing the rent control schemes in those cities.
Opponents—including a few landlord representatives who got booed while they were commenting—argued that rent control will discourage developers from building new housing in the city.
But Licata made one interesting point that hadn't gotten much talk previously, and it's one that his aide Lisa Herbold, who's running for city council, made in a campaign e-mail this morning too. (The e-mail was a written version of comments she planned to make at this morning's meeting, but public testimony ended before she was called up.)
Licata and Herbold argue that the state's ban on rent control doesn't just stop the city from enacting the kind of rent control Sawant and Licata want, but also other, more measured approaches.
"Think of any law at all that would regulate rent," Herbold wrote. "It is prohibited. Do you want to limit rent increases in rentals with code violations? It's banned. Do you want to regulate the size of rent increases for seniors, veterans, or families with small children in the winter months? It's banned. Do you want to consider an 'unconscionable rent increase' law like New Jersey has? Banned. Do you want to prohibit rent increases given to circumvent other city laws? Also banned. This entire area of housing policy has been pre-empted by Reagan era politicians in Olympia."
Herbold recently told Publicola, “there’s agreement that [rent control] doesn’t work,” but she hasn’t taken a position on it.
Could more focus on that have swayed some of the rent control skeptics on the council to support the resolution? Who knows. With most of the focus on Sawant and Licata's arguments for across-the-board rent control, that's how the discussion about this resolution has been—and will likely continue to be—framed.
The resolution will now head to a full council vote. The date is yet to be determined, but Sawant has requested October 5.