Politicians spin up nonsense in their press releases as matter of course, but last week Washington State Senator Annette Cleveland may have perfected the form in her statement on her decision to strangle the latest anti-rent gouging bill in committee.

Her explanation managed to condescend to her colleagues and to people of color in her district, conflate two related but significantly different policies (“rent control” vs “rent stabilization”), and arguably spread misinformation, all before signing off with a troll-y little cliché that didn’t even have the benefit of being true.

Her stated position on an issue that impacts the monthly budget of 40% of Washingtonians offers yet another example of the Democratically-controlled Senate’s disregard for the very people who help them maintain control of that chamber. Meanwhile, the Democratically-controlled House remains determined to keep the ball rolling on their anti-gouging measure this year, but the task may prove Sisyphean given the current makeup of the Senate.

A Senator’s Struggle with Logic and the Presentation of Basic Facts

Sen. Cleveland’s anti-renter crusade began a little more than a week ago, when she took the extraordinary step of declining to sign her committee vote on Senate Bill 5961, a decision that held the bill in limbo until last week, when she finally announced her opposition to the measure in a press release.

The Senate’s version of the proposal would have capped annual rent hikes at 15%—excluding buildings constructed within the last 15 years—until its expiration in 2044. If that bill had became law, it would have amounted to the highest such rent cap in the nation. (California caps at 10%, Oregon caps at 7% plus inflation, which can send the cap higher than 10%.) Nevertheless, in her statement on her vote, Sen. Cleveland treated a moderate measure to stop flagrant gouging as if it were a much cooler bill to keep rent increases tied to inflation.

She began her defense with the assertion that the legislation would allow landlords to raise rent by 15% every year, which was her “biggest problem” with it. “That math is brutal,” she wrote. “What renter could afford a 15 percent increase in rent with each new year?”

People who try to persuade others with an argument as shallow as that one do not respect the people they’re talking to, but I’ll extend her the courtesy she refused to extend to the public and engage anyway.

Yes, it’s true, no one who has to work for a living can afford annual 15% rent hikes. But right now, no law in Washington caps rents increases, so landlords can raise rent by 15%, 16%, 20%, 30%, 100%, or even a million percent every year if they’d like. In fact, renters in the Seattle area watched their rents climb 92% last decade. That math is pretty brutal, too. Maybe even more brutal than telling landlords they can’t raise rents more than 15% in a year? That’s kinda where this whole movement is coming from!

Later on in her statement, she repeated this logical fallacy by claiming that “Oregon and Portland have passed rent control programs that resulted in 14.6% rent increases in 2022.” When she puts it that way, you’d be forgiven for thinking that rent prices increased by 14.6% in Oregon in 2022 as a result of the state’s decision to pass a rent stabilization bill, but that’s not true.

As I mentioned earlier, Oregon’s law capped rent hikes at 7% plus inflation, and so in 2022—a year with high inflation—the state set the maximum rent increase limit at 14.6%. That's where she gets that number. Perhaps some landlords raised the rent to the cap, but overall rent prices didn’t rise that high. Again, according to the logic Cleveland used to make that point, I could just as easily say that Washington’s prohibition on rent control “resulted” in 150% rent increases in 2022, but I’m not going to make that claim in that way, because it would be misleading, which is bad.

More to the point, after Oregon passed its landlord-friendly rent stabilization measure, rent prices actually fell 5.7% between July 2022 and July 2023, according to rent.com. During that same time period, the Portland area saw a nearly 10% drop in rent prices, which were among “the fastest declining rents in the nation.” Did rent stabilization cause slower growth in rent prices in that area? Unclear! But clearly the sky did not fall, or at least rents did not shoot up.

Comparing Apples and Oranges with Cherry-Picked Quotes

In the statement, Sen. Cleveland went on to use a couple studies and a few reports on much stricter forms of rent control as evidence to support her opposition to rent stabilization. (For more on the distinction between those two policies, read this.) That lapse alone should serve as reason enough to dismiss her thinking on the issue as uninformed, but Senate leadership put her in a position to make calls on housing, so it’s worth batting back the nonsense even on her own flawed terms.

Sen. Cleveland kicked off her academic lit review of rent control studies with a link to Rebecca Diamond’s gold-standard paper on San Francisco’s rent control regime, and then she summarized the study’s conclusions by saying that rent control “reduced the available rental housing by 15 percent and that the policy likely drove up citywide rents, damaging housing affordability for future renters.” (Later on in the statement, Cleveland wrote that “the more case studies I examined, the more reasons I found to be wary of rent control,” but then, instead of linking to “more case studies,” she just linked a Bloomberg write-up of this same Diamond study, literally quoted the same line about the 15% reduction in supply, and then somehow did not immediately resign her post in disgrace.)

Anyway, first of all, San Francisco’s rent control program gives a board the authority to cap annual rent increases at a maximum of 7%, though they often cap much lower than that, which is a far cry from the wildly high 15% cap that was under consideration in Washington’s Senate.

Second of all, Cleveland pulled those quotations from the Diamond study’s introduction and conclusion, where economists often spin their findings.

According to a read from University of Minnesota Public Affairs Professor Edward Goetz, who directs the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, Diamond’s well-known study found that rent control did its job, in that it allowed people in rent-controlled apartments to keep between $2,300 and $6,000 per year between 1995 and 2012.

And, indeed, overall rents in SF during that time period did increase by 5.1% as a result of a reduction in housing supply. But, Goetz argued, rent control did not cause that reduction. Landlords who took advantage of loopholes allowing them to move into their own properties or demolish them to construct condos that were exempt from rent controls caused it. Diamond’s spin on that process is simply Diamond’s spin.

“There’s nothing in her study or frankly any other [empirical] study that exists that connects rent control to any reduction in new construction. There are plenty of studies that have looked for such a connection but have not found it,” Goetz said in a phone interview.

The main reason researchers struggle to isolate a given rental regulation’s impact on housing construction, Goetz said, relates the complex nature of housing markets. Decisions about housing construction involve interest rates, construction costs, land costs, and the strength of demand for housing, which itself has to do with job creation and the local or regional economy. That’s a lot of potential causes for changes in development, which troubles efforts to place the blame for supply reduction solely on rent control rather than on, say, downzoning, permitting requirements, stronger labor protections, or any other policy that could increase costs.

Tram Hoang, a senior associate on housing at PolicyLink, compared concerns about developer behavior in the face of rent stabilization to those of restaurant owners expressing concerns about raising the minimum wage. “Even if everyone had a job (or home), we still need basic protections in place to ensure resident well-being, and regulation is just a part of the real estate landscape. If developers choose to stop developing due to rent stabilization, their shoes will surely be filled by developers from across the country (or in neighboring Oregon) who can adapt to the regulatory environment,” she said.

The Palpable Condescension

In an attempt to demonstrate her deep and abiding concern for the plight of Black people and people of color, Cleveland characterized a report on rent control from the Urban Institute as saying that “‘Black and Hispanic residents are underrepresented in rent-controlled units’ and that rent control’s benefits ‘are concentrated among wealthier, whiter households.”

Unsurprisingly, she overstated those researchers’ claims. As that very same report says literally the sentence before her paraphrased quotation about Black and Hispanic representation in rent-controlled units, “Evidence is mixed on whether people of color access rent-controlled units in proportion to their population share or housing need.” A New Jersey study, the researchers noted, showed that Black people were overrepresented in rent-controlled units, and a New York study showed that people of color “make up a higher share of residents in rent-stabilized buildings than they do in unregulated housing.”

Cleveland’s other half-quotation emerged from a kind of convoluted point in the Urban Institute’s report. The writers cited a couple studies that compared "predicted uncontrolled rent and the actual rent paid for a controlled unit” and found that New York’s version of rent control’s “benefits” would end up “more concentrated among wealthier, white households, who tend to live in neighborhoods with relatively higher unassisted rents” than they would have in an imaginary New York City that didn’t have rent control. 

Cleveland continued her half-assed justification of her position on rent control, which is, I want to stress again, not the bill she "considered" in committee, with a link to a Q&A with a Johns Hopkins business professor who argued that some studies showed that “people with lower incomes do not get larger rent discounts,” and that “many with high incomes get very sizable discounts” in cities with rent control.

The literature on this issue of rent control poorly targeting renters is also more mixed than the business professor lets on, as Gilderbloom and Ye found that Black and low-income residents were more likely to live in rent-controlled housing. Moreover, Barton looked at strong rent controls in Berkeley, CA and found that low-income and non-students enjoyed the largest share of rent control’s benefits. But even if the research were clearer, who cares? Rich people get social security, too. Should we kill that program just because it’s poorly targeted?

Sen. Cleveland’s mischaracterizations and condescensions also raised concerns among the Members of Color Caucuses in both the Senate and the House. Both MOC caucuses identified rent stabilization as housing bill priorities this year, and the chairs of both groups supported the measures in their respective chambers.

Over the phone, Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, who carried the Senate’s version of the legislation, said Cleveland’s policy analysis compared apples and oranges, and she found her critique of the bill’s affect on people of color “offensive.”

“It becomes offensive when you wield misinformation against communities that are telling you what’s good for them,” Trudeau said.

Given that Washington’s housing supply will take decades to catch up with demand, Trudeau said rent increases will continue to contribute to homelessness in a state where many renters transfer more than 30% of their income from their boss to their landlord. According to the latest report from Harvard, around 50% of renters in the Seattle area, the Spokane area, and the Kennewick-Richland area fit that description. “If we don’t act now it’s going to get worse,” she said.

Rep. Mia Gregerson, who chairs the MOC caucus in the House, agreed that Cleveland’s statement focused on rent control, which “isn’t really what this bill does.”

“[Large rent hikes] is an important issue that we know contributes to homelessness and drives people out of their neighborhoods, which disproportionally impacts Black and brown communities, and that is fact,” she said.

A coalition of equity organizations in southwest Washington, the area Cleveland represents, sent their state senator a letter over the weekend expressing their “deep frustration and anger” over her decisions and commentary around the bill and “strongly” urged her to reconsider her stance.

The organizations, which included the directors of Southwest Washington Equity Coalition, the NAACP of Vancouver, Latino Leadership Northwest, and others, also called into question the relevance of the rent control studies Cleveland used to explain her position on rent stabilization. They argued she “incorrectly portrayed information” from the Urban Institute report and the Johns Hopkins Q&A while “simultaneously ignor[ing] the voices of those who are most directly affected and aware of the need and potential impacts of these bills.”

For the letter’s signatories, the issue is existential. "People of color and culture are more likely to rent, are more likely to experience homelessness, are more likely to experience excessive rent increases, and are more likely to remain unhoused once we become unhoused. We need rent stabilization immediately. Without it, we cannot successfully remain housed in this community,” they wrote.

In a letter released this morning, Sen. Trudeau and Rep. Gregerson echoed that call, saying it’s time to listen to and act on the demands from “over 100 community-based organizations, including faith and labor groups and those representing priorities for people of color statewide, [who] are pleading with us to center their voices, their struggles, and their pain.”

“They are not interested,” the MOC caucus chairs wrote, “in misleading data, comparing a jurisdiction that has implemented ‘rent control’ with the distinct policy before them. They are asking us to look past patronizing platitudes from those who serve to speak with authority on what is best for them while ignoring what is happening right now, in real time.”

The Time to Restrict Rent-Gouging Is Now

As if the levels of condescension weren’t high enough already, Cleveland concluded her statement with a riff on a cliché: “Haste doesn’t merely make waste,” she wrote, “It can inflict lasting hardship on families that need solutions to housing that don’t just sound good but provide housing that is affordable for more than one year.”

Even as the affordability crisis deepens across the state despite the recent passage of bills to increase supply, no one in their right mind could accuse the Legislature of acting hastily on the issue of simply reducing the phenomenon of rent-gouging. The latest wave of rent stabilization discussions started in the Legislature in 2020. Sen. Trudeau said Senators have had “multiple” work sessions on the issue during this session and over the interim. Seattle routinely includes a measure to lift the ban on rent control in its Legislative agenda. The idea has been around.

And make no mistake, though Cleveland stepped out in front of this issue, she’s not the only friend of the landlord lobby in the Senate. Other Democrats in the Senate who have reportedly opposed stabilization include Issaquah’s Mark Mullet and Seattle’s own Jamie Pedersen, the Senate majority floor leader. In a text message about this particular piece of legislation, Pedersen said he did “not necessarily” oppose the bill, and that his support would “depend on the details,” but that it had not reached a place where he could vote on it, so he's not really sure, which is exactly the sort of thing state lawmakers say when they oppose something. Somewhat to his credit, Pedersen has supported lifting the statewide ban on rent control, but that's easy because it’ll never happen, and if it did, then the move would transfer the political heat on this issue to the cities, so it'd be a win-win.

Anyway, despite the recalcitrance in the Senate, lawmakers in the House, led by Seattle Rep. Emily Alvarado, plan to continue to push that chamber’s version of the bill, which caps rents increases at 7% and also exempts new construction. For the legislation to survive, that House will need to vote it off the floor by early next week.