John Okamoto was the only Seattle City Council member to vote against a resolution asking the state to lift its ban on rent control.
John Okamoto was the only Seattle City Council member to vote against a resolution asking the state to lift its ban on rent control. Courtesy of Clay Showalter

As I told you earlier, Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess suddenly introduced a resolution today asking the state to lift its ban on rent control.

That was surprising not just because Council Members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata have already been working on (and waiting a long time for a discussion on) a resolution asking the state to lift that ban. It was also a bit of a jaw-dropper because Burgess previously said he opposed asking the state to lift the ban on rent control.

All in all, it was a head-spinning—and politically savvy—Burgess move that, when it passed 8-1 today, still left Sawant and Licata declaring victory.

Burgess's resolution was stripped of the pro-rent-control language Sawant and Licata introduced in their own measure last week, but his measure still asks the state legislature to lift the ban on rent control. In praising its passage today, Burgess took a jab at Sawant and Licata.

"I'm grateful my colleagues have rallied around this more levelheaded language in support of local control and facilitated its quick adoption today," Burgess said in a statement.

Sawant spun it her own way, releasing a press release ahead of the vote with the subtitle: "Mass Pressure Forces Establishment to Concede."

Going forward in his reelection campaign, this move lets Burgess—who has received campaign contributions from developers and the Rental Housing Association, which represents landlords and opposes rent control, and is being challenged by rent control supporter Jon Grant—have it both ways.

He can say he introduced and supported a resolution asking the state to lift its rent control ban, but he can also—in the same or different rooms—emphasize that he hasn't actually come out in support of the city imposing rent control if the ban is ever lifted.

Burgess said at today's meeting that the resolution doesn't indicate that he really supports rent control as a policy (as Licata and Sawant do). Burgess did say in his statement after the vote that "prohibiting rents from increasing 50 percent or 100 percent in a 12-month period, for example, is a reasonable regulation and would not hurt the housing market."

Burgess's opponent Grant, too, released a statement, in which he criticized Burgess for not including the language Sawant and Licata had written into their resolution.

"If Mr. Burgess is to demonstrate this is not a move to pander during an election year, he must reinstate all of the language from Council Member’s Licata and Sawant’s original resolution," Grant said in the statement. In particular, he said, Burgess should have used language Sawant and Licata included about the city's "crippling legacy of residential segregation that is now being exacerbated by increasing rents that disproportionately push people of color out of the city."

Licata and Sawant, who've been pushing this resolution for months but got basically circumvented in this process, both said they see Burgess's resolution as a victory.

"This is happening now because our movement has brought pressure to bear," Sawant said at today's meeting.

Two council members who voted against the Sawant/Licata resolution last week also tried to explain their inconsistency.

Tom Rasmussen, who last week called the discussion a "distraction" from the city's other housing affordability work, said his support for Burgess's language is "consistent with my belief that we should have local control." Rasmussen said he didn't support the language in the original resolution because it actually advocated for rent control as a good policy. Basically, Rasmussen is saying he's all in on local control, but doesn't think that local control should be used to actually implement rent control. (What he does think the city should do with the almighty local control remains unclear. This is our city council, people.)

Jean Godden, who said during her campaign for reelection that she supported asking the legislature to lift the ban, voted against the Sawant/Licata resolution last week saying she didn't support it because the mayor's housing affordability committee (known as HALA) didn't recommend rent control. Today, she no longer seemed to care about that and didn't really explain why. After being the only incumbent kicked out of the running in last month's primary election, Godden seems to have arrived at zero-fucks-given status. Trying to figure out why she's doing the things she's doing (other than because Burgess or the mayor asked her to) is basically pointless.

The only council member to vote against Burgess's resolution was stand-in John Okamoto, who has been open about his opposition to rent control and has not had a great back-and-forth with Sawant from the beginning.

So, that's that.

The city is on the record supporting "modifying or repealing" the state's ban on rent control. Now that fight goes on to Olympia.

A couple other less sexy—but still important!—rent-related things happened today. Stay with me.

• The council approved a bill requiring people who own affordable rental buildings* to notify the city 60 days before they put the buildings up for sale. That's meant to give non-profit organizations that buy up or develop affordable housing the chance to buy those buildings before they're sold to private developers. (Those developers, of course, may increase the rents dramatically, displacing the people who'd lived in the buildings.)

That 60 days is notable because Burgess, who sponsored this bill, had originally pitched just 15 days. It's hard to imagine an affordable housing provider being able to put together a million-plus-dollar funding package in two weeks.

Sharon Lee, the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, says the 60-day window is useful, but only if the city follows this up with action to make more money available to housing providers who want to buy up the buildings in question. One way to do that, Lee argues, is for the city to use its bonding authority to raise more money for affordable housing.

Lee and others, including Burgess's opponent Grant, also called on the council to strengthen this legislation by giving the city a right of first refusal, rather than just first notice. That would have meant the city would get the first chance to buy a building and maintain it as affordable housing before it could be sold to a private developer. Burgess wasn't interested.

• The council also approved another Burgess bill today, which will require landlords to give tenants more notice (90 days) when they are evicting them for reasons that are no fault of the tenant, like when the landlord wants to sell the building or move into it.

Grant had been working on this legislation with former council member Sally Clark and has called for a ban on landlords evicting tenants because they want to sell a building rather than just an extended notice.

With less than two months until the general election, all three of these issues echo the campaign talking points of both Burgess and Grant.

Burgess is campaigning on his ability to "get good things done," which sometimes means compromise or incremental progress. Grant paints Burgess's incrementalism as a barrier to real progress, accuses him of taking his marching orders from developer interests, and claims he's only taking these progressive steps because it's an election year.

So, while these particular efforts aimed at protecting Seattle's renters have finished their council process—for now—we're sure to hear a lot more about them on the campaign trail.

*defined as buildings with five or more units in which one or more is rented at a price affordable to people making 80 percent or less of the area median income, or about $46,100 for one person or $65,800 for a family of four.