After a decade of advocating for stabilizing the cost of rents, Council Member Kshama Sawant and her fighting movement plan to put her long-teased rent control “trigger law” up for a vote before the council this summer.
While it's unclear where her council colleagues stand on the policy, even one of the Seattle City Council’s most conservative members, Council Member Debra Juarez, said at a meeting last week that the topic was “ripe for discussion” in both the City of Seattle and the state of Washington.
Still, Sawant said renters shouldn’t read too much into Juarez’s off-handed comments. She urged every council member, particularly self-proclaimed progressives, to take a clear stance on her trigger law. She also urged working people to prepare to mount a movement “strong enough to defeat the Democrats who will predictably oppose it.”
What a Decade on the Dais Has Lead Up To
Rent control or rent stabilization means limiting a landlord’s ability to gouge tenants with massive rent hikes. In Sawant’s 2019 and 2021 draft proposals, landlords would only be able to raise rent at the rate of inflation. For example, the median apartment in Seattle rents for about $1,900 a month, and the rate of inflation is at 5%. Under Sawant’s proposals, that would mean a landlord could increase that unit’s rent up to $1,995 a month this year, which amounts to a $1,140 annual raise for the landlord on that unit alone.
The legislation is also “free of corporate loopholes,” such as exemptions for new buildings, carve-outs that exclude single-family homes, or or ones that allow landlords to jack up the price while a unit is vacant. Sawant told The Stranger that her next proposal will be very similar with a few small edits.
Sawant’s proposal would go into effect the moment the State Legislature repeals the 1981 statewide ban. That didn’t happen this session, and no one even introduced a bill to do that. But for Sawant, that’s all the more reason to pass her trigger law. She believes Seattle passing the law would pressure Democrats in Olympia to finally start acting like they have a majority.
Many of her council colleagues support an end to that pesky little statewide ban, which would allow local jurisdictions to enact rent control if they so choose. In fact, the policy made the council’s State Legislative Agenda in 2023, with the caveat that the City would only back legislation that wouldn’t make “a negative impact on the quality or quantity of housing supply.”
Who’s Triggered By the Trigger Law?
However, council members have never seen Sawant’s trigger law in front of them for a vote, so it's unclear who would support passing a rent control ordinance before Olympia gives them a thumbs up.
Council President Juarez argued in a meeting last month that renter protections such as the $10 late fee cap only “nibble around the edges” of the “core issue, which is rent control.”
She did not respond to my request for an interview, but her comments mark a shift from her position in 2019, when she told the Seattle Times the City could “maybe” benefit from rent control. If everyone on the council from Sawant’s end of the spectrum to Juarez’s supported her trigger law, it would pass easily.
I asked every council office for comment on Sawant’s trigger ban. Only Council Members Lisa Herbold and Tammy Morales responded.
While Herbold said she would support rent control in Seattle if the state law changed, she said she’s “unfamiliar” with a rent control trigger law, which I linked in an email.
Morales said she would also support rent control once the Legislature overturned the ban. When asked if she would support a trigger law, she pointed to her office’s “good track record of passing, strengthening, and supporting tenant rights legislation,” including her work on pandemic-era rent control for commercial leases. She added, “We’ll know more when we see a draft from [Sawant’s] office and will take it from there.”
Sawant’s not surprised that the majority of the Council did not weigh in.
“Council Members will be asked by constituents or the media if they support rent control, and they will often respond by saying that it is banned statewide, avoiding giving a clear answer and implying that the question is not a good use of their time,” she said.
However, some strong rent control advocates among the next batch of council candidates have poked their heads out. Abolitionist-curious prosecutor Efrain Hudnell wrote in The Stranger that he would pass a rent control trigger law if he won District 3’s vote, and if Sawant didn’t beat him to it. District 4 candidate Ron “Bike Lane” Davis has also told The Stranger he would support and even introduce a rent control trigger law.
The Pressure Is On! Maybe…
Whether Sawant fulfills her long-held promise or a newbie finishes the job, not everyone thinks a trigger law will be very helpful.
Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle), who has supported rent control legislation at the state level for years, told The Stranger that she’s “personally interested” to see what policy the council and Mayor would pass, but she doesn’t think a trigger law would “influence the votes broadly within the Democratic caucuses, and move not even the Seattle delegation.” Ahem, state Sen. Jamie Pedersen.
According to the Seattle Times, Democrats couldn’t get even a weak anti-gouging bill across the finish line this year because Republicans threatened to pile on a bunch of amendments to slow down debate ahead of the policy deadline. However Macri told The Stranger that if the bill had consistent, strong support within the Democratic caucuses, those last-minute amendments wouldn’t kill the bill.
In order to pass rent control or any renter protections at all for that matter, she said a well-organized, statewide advocacy campaign will need to convince fence-sitters and “diffuse” scary messaging from the landlord lobby.
But Sawant said a trigger law in Seattle could be a part of that equation because it would “hugely galvanize and empower tens of thousands of renters statewide” and “increase the potential to build a movement to expose State Democrats and win statewide rent control.”
However, some argue the trigger law in Seattle could actually “backfire,” since some Washingtonians fear the Seattle-ification of their suburb or rural town. Sawant argues the opposite, claiming the fight for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle moved the needle in Olympia. However, the Legislature actually twiddled its thumbs after the historic win and punted to the people, who approved Initiative 1433 in 2016 to raise the state minimum wage and then tie it to inflation. The state minimum wage just broke $15 this year.
Speculation on strategy aside, Sawant thinks someone has to do something.
“Our Seattle rent control bill is certainly not guaranteed to win, but sitting back and hoping for the good will of Democrats in Olympia is guaranteed to fail,” Sawant said.