It's been six weeks since Seattle City Council members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant introduced a resolution that would call on the state legislature to lift its ban on rent control. The council has yet to take a vote on the idea.
That's because the Licata-Sawant resolution is stuck in the hands of one guy: temporary council member John Okamoto.
Okamoto chairs the council's housing affordability committee, meaning he's entirely in control of that committee's calendar. When council members introduce legislation they want a vote on, the council president refers it to whatever committee is relevant. Then it's up to that committee's chair to schedule it for discussion. In this case, that's Okamoto. And six weeks in, he still hasn't scheduled the resolution.
Licata and Sawant both say they've asked Okamoto when he plans to schedule the measure and they're still not sure what's going on. Okamoto told Licata that because of all the things his committee needs to deal with, he wouldn't get to it until late August or September. Licata says that's "not acceptable." The council doesn't meet during the last two weeks of August, and then the budgeting process starts soon after that, consuming much of the rest of the year.
So now Licata is laying down a deadline. If Okamoto won't commit to scheduling the rent control resolution by early September, Licata will bring the legislation to the full city council. Like, now. At a crowded rent control debate at Town Hall on July 20, Licata said he'll soon push for a workaround by reintroducing the bill and asking the full council to send it to his committee, finance and culture, instead.
Okamoto isn't on board. He says in an e-mail to The Stranger that the Licata-Sawant legislation "falls squarely within [the housing affordability committee's] purview" and that "there's no reason it should be referred to another committee."
Why all the fighting just to schedule consideration of a nonbinding resolution? Licata is retiring after his current term is up at the end of the year, so if the vote on the resolution gets pushed out too far, he may not even be around to usher it through. More importantly, he thinks this is all a shrouded attempt to doom the bill.
The consequences of Okamoto's foot-dragging, Licata fears, will be to "kill this resolution by delay." He describes it all as "a practice I've seen in the past with other legislation." One example that's well-known to civic nerds: In 2014, Council Member Mike O'Brien tried to usher a public campaign financing bill through the council process in order to get it on the fall ballot. To do that, he needed Council President Tim Burgess to put the bill on the council's calendar. Burgess refused. When O'Brien took it to the full council, the vote tied four to four, the bill didn't make it on the calendar, and the public lost a chance to vote on campaign finance reform.
From interviews, comments in public, and the statements of those incumbents who are running for reelection, we know a majority of the city council has expressed support for a resolution asking the state to lift its rent control ban. But it's a slim majority—five in favor, one opposed, and three who haven't made their positions clear. If a couple supporters, like Jean Godden and Bruce Harrell, waffle in order to back Okamoto, Licata could lose the fight when the full council gets involved.
Still, Sawant says the council should capitalize on the political momentum that exists around rent control right now. (Even though a recent EMC Research poll showed little voter support for rent control as a top priority when compared to a "broad based" approach.) "When there is momentum on the ground and people are engaged and feel like they want to push for a real grassroots movement for housing affordability, that's when we have to push," Sawant says. "If we delay, that's like killing any hope for anything happening."