Council Members Debra Juarez, Sara Nelson, and Andrew Lewis struck down Council Member Kshama Sawant’s long-awaited rent control trigger law 2 to 3 in her committee meeting Friday morning. Sawant and the renters who filled council chambers set a clear choice for the members of the Renter’s Rights and Sustainability Committee: Side with landlords who desperately want to price-gouge their tenants, or stand with renters whose wages can’t keep up with inflation, let alone random rent hikes. For the time being, three chose the former option. 

Nevertheless, the bill will still advance to a final vote at full council next month, where Lewis, who bases his votes on which way the wind blows, could be the deciding vote if the usual pro-renter voters approve it, too. 

If the council passes the trigger law, Seattle still couldn’t implement rent control until the State Legislature overturns the 1981 ban on rent control. However, given a potential shift to the right on council come November, now may be the City’s best shot at setting up the most progressive, anti-capitalist version of the policy in case Olympia ever decides to move on this issue. 

Rent control, also known as rent stabilization, limits a landlord’s ability to raise rents. Sawant’s proposal would allow landlords to raise rents with the rate of inflation based on Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Area Consumer Price Index. Sawant argued if a landlord is not gouging their tenants, then the law would not affect them. 

Proponents say that rent control will help them continue to afford to live in Seattle–or inside at all. Developers and other urbanists said that the policy would cut into profits and stifle housing development in the face of a housing crisis. Landlords say that if they cannot raise rents as high as they want, whenever they want, they will no longer be able to “provide housing” because it will be less lucrative for them to profit off of the basic human right they have exploited for passive income. Dang! (You can read more about the whole debate in the five-part series The Stranger published in 2019.) 

Juarez spoke against the bill first. Though she thinks state preemption of local rent control policy is unjust, she argues the City should wait for the State to lift the ban. 

She also argued that the public might get confused if they pass a trigger law and think the City actually passed rent control. The supporters in council chambers did not like that. 

One of Sawant’s panelists found Juarez’s comment “incredibly condescending.”

“We perfectly understand that passing this legislation will not immediately enact rent control, and we are telling you to vote yes on it. Saying that you are going to vote no in our interests is extremely disrespectful, to be honest,” the panelist said to applause. 

Lewis spoke against the bill next. He described the renters’ arguments as “compelling,” but also said no one made a “compelling argument” about the strategy of passing a trigger law. He does not think a trigger law will change attitudes in Olympia, nor does he think it would spark a legal challenge that would cause the court to throw out the State law.

Sawant expressed her disappointment in Lewis. She said that he loves to talk about “building coalitions,” but she asked him who he would build a coalition with by voting “no.” “It is certainly not with the majority of renters who think this is a good idea,” she said.

Lewis recently pissed off renters when he supported Nelson’s “progressive sliding scale” amendment to water-down Sawant’s $10 late fee legislation. After public pressure and a heart-to-heart with Tweeter Rian Watt, Lewis changed his mind and voted with the progressives. 

That kind of change seems unlikely here. Lewis just wound up on the bad side of big business over his vote on public drug use and possession earlier this summer. As he fights for reelection, this vote gives him the chance to make amends and prove he will do the landlords’ bidding in his next term.

The full council will vote on the trigger law in the first or second week of August. With Sawant and Morales both firm supporters, three others will have to join in voting “yes” to pass the bill. Council Member Teresa Mosqueda usually aligns with Sawant and Morales. Council Member Lisa Herbold tends to pull progressive on renters issues, and she supported commercial rent control during the pandemic. No one should count on Council Member Dan Strauss for anything, but especially not to vote for something Sawant proposes while he’s trying to be as conservative as possible to get reelected.

Many stars need to align, but Sawant could still make good on her promise to pass the trigger law in one last hurrah before the lone socialist leaves the dais.