Socialist city council member Kshama Sawant: friend
Socialist city council member Kshama Sawant: friend City of Seattle

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant built her campaign for reelection last year on housing affordability—particularly, on a call for rent control. But, as many predicted, she's made little progress since then on actually making rent control a reality.

In order for Seattle to even consider rent control (which Sawant envisions as tying rent increases to inflation), state lawmakers must lift the ban that prevents cities from regulating rents. Republicans don't like rent control. Neither do some mainstream Democrats. It's an election year and the state legislature is largely dysfunctional. The result: Rent control has gained little traction in Olympia.

Now, Sawant is looking at a workaround. The state ban on rent control specifically mentions residential properties, so Sawant believes it doesn't cover commercial properties. Even if the city can't yet regulate rents on apartment buildings, Sawaant argues that controlling rents on commercial properties could help small businesses stay open in increasingly expensive neighborhoods. As promised last year, she is now convening small business owners to talk about the idea.

Still unclear: whether commercial rent control is actually legal—and whether Sawant cares.

The title of the state's rent control ban refers to "residential structures," but the law itself mentions both residential buildings and "sites other than properties in public ownership." How broadly or narrowly to define that clause is up for interpretation.

Last year, Sawant's office told reporters they had asked the city attorney's office for advice on whether commercial rent control would be allowed, but then the city attorney's office said they hadn't heard about it. Today, I asked Kimberly Mills, a spokesperson for City Attorney Pete Holmes, whether the office has offered any advice to Sawant on this. She said only this: "Our office doesn’t disclose what council members seek advice on; Council Member Sawant is free to, of course." Sawant's office has not yet returned a request for comment.

Even if commercial rent control is illegal, Sawant and her supporters could push for it anyway and argue the policy should be forced to a court decision a la allowing Uber drivers to unionize. At that point, the idea would surely face opposition from some city council members and developers. "It doesn't matter whether it's legal or not," developer lobbyist Roger Valdez told me in the fall. "It's a bad idea."

Tomorrow night, Sawant will hold an event to talk more about all of this as well as portable retirement accounts, expanded late-night transit, expanded homelessness services, municipal banking, low interest loans, and commercial leasing with a priority for small businesses. (Sawant proposes funding increased services with taxes on big business.) The event—"The Progressive Small Business Summit"—starts at 7 p.m. at the Eritrean Association.