While landlords met inside the convention center, tenant advocates rallied outside.
While landlords met inside the convention center, tenant advocates rallied outside. nate gowdy

Tenant advocates and politicians, namely Kshama Sawant, have for years called for a policy they say would help Seattle renters but which is outlawed in Washington: rent control.

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Today, State Representative Nicole Macri, a Democrat whose district includes Capitol Hill, announced she will propose a bill to repeal the state ban on rent control.

"We cannot waste this opportunity," Macri said, referring to Democrats' complete takeover of the state legislature. "Up until this point, the legislature has been nibbling around the edges."

Macri made the announcement at a rally in support of tenants' rights outside the Washington State Convention Center. Inside, landlords, property managers, and others were attending an annual meeting sponsored by several statewide landlord organizations. During the group's lunch, a handful of protesters individually stood up and shouted in support of tenants’ rights. Event staff and security guards escorted the protesters one by one out of the building.

Outside, advocates and elected officials spoke in support of repealing the statewide ban on rent control and increasing protections for renters.

"This is a racial justice issue. This is a gender justice issue," said newly elected Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda. "The majority of us who are renters are women and people of color."

Council Member Kshama Sawant said Democrats in the state legislature “can no longer blame Republicans" and “should immediately" lift the rent control ban.

Though rent increases here in Seattle are now beginning to slow, rents rose about 6 percent over the last year. Meanwhile, about 8,500 people are experiencing homelessness, about 3,900 of whom are living in tents, vehicles, or on the streets, according to the last one-night count.

Sawant, who has pushed a series of tenant protections during her time on council, recently unveiled a new proposal to try to discourage so-called "economic evictions" (people forced to move because they can't afford a rent increase). Under Sawant's proposal, if a landlord raises rent by more than 10 percent on a tenant making less than about $50,000 and the tenant moved out, the landlord would be required to pay pay three months worth of rent to the tenant.

Citing the Grenfell Tower fire in London this year, Sawant said today, “housing movements of working class and homeless people are springing up on every continent on the globe.” (Also on site to watch the rally: Carl Haglund, a landlord who is suing Sawant for $25 million after she called him a “slumlord.” Haglund said he was attending the convention.)

Rent control is a controversial policy that has not had a real shot in Washington in decades. Seattle voters rejected a measure to enact rent control in 1980 and the legislature passed the statewide ban in 1981. According to Macri, there has been only one attempt to repeal the ban since then.

In 2015, Sawant publicly debated rent control with a Republican lawmaker and a developer lobbyist. Also that year, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution asking the state to lift the ban. The council's recently approved lobbying agenda for the upcoming legislative session says the city supports "the repeal or modification of RCW 35.21.830 [the ban on rent control] to allow local governments to protect tenants from rent increases, without causing a negative impact on the quality or quantity of housing supply."

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By Macri’s own admission, the strategy to repeal the ban is a long game.

“Every tenant protection we have fought for has been a long game,” Macri said in an interview after the rally. Macri also works at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides shelter and services to people experiencing homelessness.

“We have an opportunity to discuss tenant protections in a way we haven’t had in several years," Macri said, "but I’m not naive about the work that it will take.”

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