The rent is too goddamn high! You know it. We know it. It's spiraling out of control. Seattle experienced the largest rent increases (11 percent) of any major city over the past three years, according to census data, far outstripping wage growth. Renters make up 52 percent of the city's residents. And Seattle is the fastest-growing large city in America. Where will all these new people be able to afford to live? Will they be forced to commute on crowded freeways from suburbs?
Not to worry, folks: Mayor Ed Murray is on the case, with his tried-and-true "lock 'em in a room and make 'em hash out a compromise" strategy. On September 23, he announced a 28-member committee, with the blessing of the city council, and charged it with tackling Seattle's "affordability crisis." They're supposed to come up with recommendations by next May. This is the biggest, baddest advisory committee (yes, you read that right) of his term so far: It boasts four more members than the one that worked out the $15-minimum-wage deal, plus the scope of its considerations and its impact will likely go far beyond the wage bump. David Wertheimer, the committee's cochair, says no housing solution is off-limits from discussion. That means, he says, everything from microhousing to raising fees on developers to rent control.
But does this unelected committee represent Seattle?
It depends on who you ask and how you count.
"I have very serious concerns about the overall makeup and balance of this committee," said Council Member Kshama Sawant after the list of committee members' names was released. "People of color, renters, and labor are all dramatically underrepresented, while developer and business interests dominate in the current proposal." Her office could not provide Sawant's tally of who represents whom on the committee, though Sawant did contend, in a statement, that no low-income tenants fighting the Seattle Housing Authority's "Stepping Forward" rent-hike plan are on the committee.
Lauren Craig, a policy analyst for Puget Sound Sage, agrees that there is "underrepresentation" on the committee, though she didn't quantify that, either. She also notes that Sage's lead coalition organizer—a single mother who cannot afford to live in Seattle—will be in the committee room, fighting for minorities and low-income renters. Her presence on the committee does seem to indicate there's been one appointment that makes good on the mayor's promise, earlier this summer, to include people who work in Seattle but cannot afford to live here. (Though the mayor did say "people," rather than "one person," and so far I only count one person who fits this bill.)
Mayoral spokesman Jason Kelly says the administration didn't ask any of the members where they live. He also said the mayor believes the committee represents "a strong balance of community interests and technical expertise."
Who knows what's in every committee member's heart; better to watch their actions. But, as with the minimum-wage committee, that's going to be a challenge. When the housing committee begins meeting, it'll be behind closed doors, making it hard to know who's really advocating for what. Still, by my count, the mayor's new housing committee has 11 members who fit into the broad category of developer or construction interests. It has 10 members who might be considered advocates for low-income renters (including one student at the University of Washington). Two of its members have yet to be named, and five of the members were hard to categorize as either purely pro-developer or purely pro-renter. The directors of grassroots groups like the Tenants Union and El Centro de la Raza are on the committee, as are executives of big real estate and construction firms like HAL Real Estate Investments and Skanska.
An 11-to-10 split is not a dramatic disparity, and Wertheimer, one of the cochairs, says: "This committee has not been charged with creating a housing environment that's only accessible to the wealthy." Asked about the landlords and developers on the committee who may be resistant to stronger affordable-housing provisions, he suggested that some members will need to "check their more parochial interests at the door."
Wertheimer, who works on homelessness issues for the Gates Foundation, said in an interview that the "creative tension" between the different committee members will be a good thing. "This is going to be really hard work," he told me. "I'm not afraid of a difficult conversation."
Jonathan Grant, director of the Tenants Union, said, "The mayor deserves a lot of credit for getting out ahead of the affordable-housing crisis, though it will take a lot of his leadership to make sure the makeup of the committee doesn't predetermine the outcomes of our discussion." With the minimum-wage committee, that leadership took the form of Murray bursting through the door, according to Seattle Met magazine, screaming at deadlocked committee members, "You're fucking with me!" until they worked out a deal.
The housing committee begins meeting next month, on November 4, Election Day.