LESS THAN 24 HOURS after rookie Seattle City Council Member Judy Nicastro published a report detailing the sad state of renters' rights in this city (priming the pump for her upcoming "Renters' Summit"), the angry e-mails started pouring in. One landlord wondered whether Nicastro was "proposing a socialistic state." Another, one dj_ripp@hotmail.com, had this to say: "I am totally offended by your lack of understanding of how capitalism works. People like yourself should move to a communist country if you want to live by their doctrines of rent controls. These extreme policies that you endorse are restrictive to our economic cycles."

Nicastro laughs off the missives. In fact, she's buoyant about the stir her nine-page document is causing. The report, which serves as the opening shot in the war for renters' rights she promised to wage back when she was a council candidate, lays out six proposals that will define the June 10 summit she's hosting at Seattle Center. The get-together is aimed at changing the balance of power between landlord and tenant, says Nicastro, "to show the political power of renters." Currently, Nicastro thinks landlord/tenant laws allow landlords to bully renters, especially vulnerable populations like the poor and elderly. She also wants to address the rental pricing crisis that's forcing middle- and low-income people out of Seattle. The average cost of a new rental in Seattle is $1,000 per month. That means Seattle's market is currently geared toward renters making nearly $40,000 a year.

"This is about to get nasty," Nicastro says in her trademark New Joyzee accent. She has, in effect, set up a class war by taking up the cause of 52 percent of the city's population--Seattle renters.

The sides in this war are clearly discernible. The Tenants Union's (TU) makeshift offices--decorated with "Free Mumia" posters and butcher-paper charts--are located in a Columbia City church basement at 39th Avenue and Ferdinand. With a measly budget of $300,000, the organization employs just three full-timers. In fact, on the day The Stranger stopped in, the staff was having an emergency budget meeting to grapple with the $10,000 hit they took in mid-May, thanks to a decision by King County to pull some funding.

Chris Benis, the anointed mouthpiece for Seattle's landlord coalition (the Apartment Association of Seattle-King County, or AASK, which Nicastro suspects of sending most of those nasty e-mails) works out of his posh downtown law office, on Sixth Avenue in the gold-tinted United Airlines building. Benis (who owns 16 houses in Bellevue) has a suite on the 10th floor overlooking Lake Union, furnished with hardwood floors and Persian rugs.

The Tenants Union and AASK have been battling for years, typically showing up in Olympia to testify on opposing sides of tenant/landlord issues; and AASK members have often found their tenants caught up in TU organizing drives. With Nicastro, an elected politician, jumping directly into the fray, the stakes have been raised. Nicastro's report now defines the battleground.

Despite a serious gaffe (the report says rents have increased 25 percent over five years, but the number is really 7.2 percent after you--duh!--adjust for inflation), the document still paints a grim picture of the renters' market. The crux of the study is that low-income families simply cannot afford to rent in Microsoft-era Seattle. "At this point in our history," the report states, "it is critical that the City must take a more proactive role if we are to maintain an economically diverse community... 33,000 low and moderate-income households have been unable to find rents they can afford and have therefore been forced to spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent." (The federal government defines affordable housing as 30 percent of a household's gross monthly income.)

The report adds, "In Seattle's current rental housing market, only about 18 percent of all units are available below $600 per month, an amount that is affordable to a... family earning 50 percent of the median income."

Nicastro's proposals, which will be discussed at the summit, include the following:

... A trade-off with developers that would ease parking requirements (thus saving construction costs), in exchange for setting aside up to 40 percent of units for people making 60 percent of median income.

... Considering a rental rebate program for low-to-moderate-income tenants.

... Increasing the housing supply by encouraging "innovative" rental housing options using existing units, through things like "mother-in-law apartments" (a.k.a. attics and basements), infill developments, and home-sharing programs.

... Giving tenants or nonprofit developers the first option to purchase ("Right of First Refusal") subsidized units that are about to be converted to market-rate housing.

... Giving tenants more legal muscle by lowering the standard of proof in landlord retaliation cases, and considering the concept of a housing court.

... Working to repeal the state law prohibiting local rent regulations, including rent control.

Maneuvering through the Left and Right

The reaction from both the Tenants Union and AASK is decidedly political. Both groups are posturing in fairly predictable ways publicly, while saying other things privately.

The hard lefties at the Tenants Union (they believe "rent is theft" and think the notion of a good landlord is an oxymoron) are publicly critical of Nicastro. "This is not a renters' summit. It's Judy's summit," says Scott Winn, a Tenants Union organizer. Winn's stance is intended to prevent Nicastro from co-opting the Tenants Union--allowing his 850-member group to remain outside of the system as dissenters, where they can, they believe, agitate for more dramatic change. "Policy that really changes the balance of power will only get passed by organized people forcing change on the government," says 32-year-old Winn, a polite and charming Marxist. "That's how social change movements work. We're tenants. She's the government."

Winn is concerned that Nicastro's solutions put too much weight on enticing developers to build new units rather than encouraging the city to preserve existing low-income stock. His worry is that new development will focus on high-rent units that gentrify neighborhoods. "Instead of choosing to subsidize landlord profits," he says, "the city should prioritize subsidizing the lives of tenants through purchasing buildings."

The Tenants Union set up an eight-member committee, which included Winn, to address Nicastro's summit. They drew up four requests (for example, allowing a Tenants Union member to address the opening session) that were geared toward tenant organizing. Nicastro denied most of the requests, stating simply, "This summit is about rental policy, not organizing."

Despite the rejection, Winn is quietly thrilled about Nicastro's proposals, because they include (thanks to Tenant Union input) the TU's top issue: Right of First Refusal. "Obviously, we think it's incredible--amazing--that a city council member is prioritizing renters' rights," he says.

Meanwhile, AASK is publicly saying they've buried the hatchet with Nicastro. As an official Political Action Committee (PAC), AASK spent an astounding $21,732 during last year's council election--mainly to keep Nicastro out of office. They even set up their own independent expenditure group to pay for a mass mailing hyping Nicastro's opponent, landlord and high school principal Cheryl Chow. And that doesn't include the $6,000-plus that individual building owners donated to Chow's campaign after landlord Wes Uhlman sent out a fundraising letter on Chow's behalf. ["Landlords of the World Unite," Josh Feit, Sept 23, 1999.]

But that's in the past, says Benis publicly, who claims he's now ready for a "mature dialogue." He says he's excited that Nicastro is prioritizing the parking issue: "That's been on our legislative agenda for years." However, behind the scenes (witness the e-mail assault), landlords are clearly concerned. "Would it be easier for us if Judy didn't do this? Yes. But she was elected," Benis says.

AASK's criticisms of Nicastro's proposals are predictable. They complain that "Right of First Refusal" and rent control are "unworkable," and interfere with the free market. "We opposed Judy in the election because she was a proponent of rent control," says Benis. "We're adults, but that is non-negotiable for us." Meanwhile, Benis, 38, accuses the Tenants Union of being just as intransigent. "We have no basis for a dialogue with them. I remember debating Scott [Winn] once, and he said the fact that landlord taxes had increased 20 percent shouldn't have any impact on a tenant. What can I say to that?"

Nicastro, however, managed to work with both the Tenants Union and AASK on her report. Clearly, renters' liberation commando Nicastro--who pissed off one group of landlords so badly during her election campaign that they threatened a libel lawsuit--has figured out how to play nice. In other words, she's smart enough to realize that she needs AASK at the table in order to make anything happen. It's surely no mistake that the number-one item listed on Nicastro's Renters' Summit flyer is a centerpiece of AASK's legislative agenda: reducing parking requirements. It's also no mistake that Nicastro highlighted the parking issue when The Stranger asked her to say which of her six proposals were "must haves." While looking after landlord and developer profits doesn't change the balance of power for tenants, it does grease the wheels to that end. Now, both Winn and Benis are sitting on Summit panels.

Now to Convince Her Co-Workers

Even if Nicastro's summit is a success, though, she still needs four council votes (not counting her own) to turn any of her ideas into policy. Her only obvious ally is Council Member Nick Licata, who, displaying his camaraderie on renters' rights issues, is currently shopping legislation that would allow rental applicants to have portable credit checks. (Currently, prospective tenants often have to pay for a credit check with each application.) Nicastro's colleagues on the tenant-landlord committee (Margaret Pageler and Peter Steinbrueck), on the other hand, are playing it politically safe by adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Steinbrueck did offer a reality check on some of Nicastro's proposals: He's skeptical about pushing "mother-in-law apartments," something he tried to get done in his first term. "It took me a year and a half just to get some very simple, common-sense zoning changes on that issue," he says, "and in the end we had to give up on trying to change the law that says the house must be occupied by the owner. People said we were duplexing the city. People are really hostile to renters in this city."

As for repealing the state law prohibiting local rent regulations, Steinbrueck says he agrees with Nicastro, but doesn't see much support among his other colleagues. "That's a long-term battle that few politicians are willing to take up." On the issue of renters' courts, Steinbrueck is downright candid: "That's a pipe dream," he says, citing the long waiting list for "special interest" courts.

Ultimately, Steinbrueck thinks Nicastro is being naive about her ambitious agenda. "I, like Judy, came in bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm for rapid-fire change," the second-termer says, "but the machinery here is slow. That's something I had to learn."

Is Nicastro a naive newcomer? The immediate evidence would suggest otherwise. During her first six months in office, she's pushed pieces of her renters' agenda through Mark Sidran's office, getting his staff to back her up on serious legal changes to landlord-tenant laws; she got Council President Margaret Pageler to shell out extra cash for the Renters' Summit and to change the name of the Business, Economic & Community Development Committee to the Landlord/Tenant and Land Use Committee; and she got the cash-heavy AASK to humbly play along.

More telling is the level-headed political approach that Nicastro--elected as a bomb-throwing proletariat dissident--is bringing to the table. Nicastro says the best hope she has of getting the votes to pass her renters' rights bag of goodies is to keep it from becoming radicalized by the same old activists who constantly advocate for housing issues. (Did somebody mention John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition?)

"Everybody on this floor knows who the players are, and they don't listen to them anymore," she says. "So part of the goal of this summit is get people who are not part of the activist community involved. Council members need to hear from new people." Interestingly, when pressed about the relevance of the Tenants Union, Nicastro demurred, saying simply that their lobbying efforts would be "neither helpful nor harmful."

Nicastro's goal is to attract 1,000 people to the summit. "If people don't care enough about this issue to come, then it's going to be very hard to do any of this. The public has a lot of influence when they're loud." The summit will be a wash, she says, if three specific items (out of her six broader issues) don't come to pass: making the repeal of the state law prohibiting local rent regulations a priority in the city's 2001 Olympia legislative agenda, lowering the standard of proof in landlord retaliation cases, and reducing parking requirements.

Steinbrueck has a feeling she's not going to get what she wants. "In this country, we have not accepted housing as a right. It's a commodity. That's the challenge we have to deal with. Judy tapped into renters' issues in her campaign. She's become identified as the renters' candidate. Now, she probably has some unrealistic expectations on her shoulders."

Get your gouged tenant ass down to the Renters' Summit, Seattle Center, Northwest Rooms, Sat June 10, 8:30 am-1 pm. *