Sawant is back.
Sawant wants more money for renters' rights and tiny house villages. Nathalie Graham

Kshama Sawant made her way to the podium inside City Hall, her progress slowed by handshakes and hugs from supporters. Meanwhile, the freshly re-elected council member's staff was organizing people behind the podium. "Remember," one organizer said firmly, energizing the crowd, "Seattle voters decisively said no to Amazon." The crowd cheered. "When we fight, we win!" He shouted and the crowd echoed it back.

Sawant had gathered her supporters bright and early Wednesday morning for a rally on "Renter's Rights & Restorative Justice" to call for more changes to Mayor Durkan's proposed $6.5 billion budget, answering the whole "What's next after your win?" question before reporters could even ask it.

Last week, the Council's Budget Committee chair, Council Member Sally Bagshaw, released a list of 150 new proposals and amendments. While it made room for homelessness outreach services and more tiny houses, Sawant believed she and her movement could win more.

"That is why we stand here together as a movement," Sawant told the crowd at the press conference. "In the next few weeks, even though we’re not going to solve the inequality crisis of our city, we know we can win more than we have already won."

Sawant cited collaborative work with the council that led to the following allocations, progressive wins she was already proud of:

  • $1.8 million to open two or three additional tiny house villages
  • $1.3 million for mobile restrooms in Seattle
  • $3.5 million to expand the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program
  • $115,000 to give renters facing eviction access to an attorney
  • $15,000 to fund Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration
  • $36,000 this year for the Vietnamese Senior Association, an increase of $10,000 over last year

  • Forty-four new amendments and proposals were put before the council on Wednesday. The ones Sawant submitted focused mainly on renters' rights and constructing more tiny house villages.

    Renters need more representation

    In the current proposed amendments, there is $115,000 set aside for eviction legal defense, which would offer renters facing eviction legal representation. According to Edmund Witter, managing attorney with the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project (HJP), having legal representation for eviction is one of the best ways to prevent homelessness.

    According to a study done in 2018, reported by Crosscut, "researchers found that tenants with counsel were twice as likely to avoid eviction as those facing eviction court without a lawyer."

    "When we do have representation we’re able to prevent the eviction three out of four times," Witter said at Wednesday's rally.

    The problem is that the HJP, which provides pro-bono representation to low-income tenants facing eviction, doesn't have the staff, or really the funds, to help the vast amount of demand for representation.

    "Frankly," Witter said, "We‘ve seen more support from private businesses than from the government or the city of Seattle at this point.”

    For example, Home Base, a United Way project with funding from Microsoft and the Mariners, provides legal fees through HJP and is able to pay back rent tenants owe landlords. According to a Crosscut report, before Home Base's 2019 launch, HJP "was able to prevent evictions in only about 20 percent of its cases." Since Home Base, that number is around 66 percent.

    That proposed $115,000 in Bagshaw's amended budget last week is enough for about one more eviction attorney. Sawant has proposed $419,522 for six tenants' rights attorneys. To pay for it, Sawant suggests taking from funds set aside for SDOT’s public outreach regarding congestion pricing.

    Fewer sweeps, more tiny villages

    Additionally, Sawant isn't satisfied with the money carved away in the budget for only two or three tiny house villages. She wants to do away with the Navigation Team and use those funds ($8,395,000), as well as money from the Human Services Department allocated to remove a tiny house village in Northlake ($200,000), to fund 14 tiny house villages ($8,595,000).

    Sawant wholeheartedly does not agree with the Navigation Team, which was given a nearly $8.4 million budget by the mayor. She said she would support the team if it "were to do the task of actually taking our homeless neighbors and offer them options that would work for them like tiny houses..." but, according to Sawant, that's not what the Navigation Team does.

    Often times, there just isn't a place for homeless people to go. In an earlier interview with The Stranger, Daniel Malone, the executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, said that "the shelters are full. Even if everyone in an encampment were to become interested in going into shelter, the vast majority would have no shelter to go to."

    "Voters have rejected candidates who peddled more sweeps and more police," Sawant said on Wednesday. "I think you can say the sweeps candidates got swept."

    In the budget meeting following Sawant's rally, some other council members, like Lorena González, also weren't convinced of the Navigation Team's efficacy, but they still did not agree to co-sponsor Sawant's budget item. Similarly, a Sawant item that would take $522,600 from SPD recruitment and retention and put it toward youth diversion programs was shot down by fellow council members.

    Allies on the council?
    The election campaigns against Sawant called her divisive and claimed she wasn't a good teammate. Yet, when asked by The Stranger about her allies on the council, she again cited collaboration with Council Members Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda, and Lorena González, which led to some of the progressive budget items like expanding the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. But, more so, she pointed back to the movement.

    "At the end of the day," Sawant told The Stranger, "what our six-year track record of our movement... has shown is that we can get unanimous votes on the city council for progressive measures if we have our movement pushing for it. That should be our priority."

    Echoing that sentiment, back in Wednesday's council chamber room packed with movement supporters, one person muttered to another, "We're going to have to figure out how to work with Pedersen," referring to Alex Pedersen, the newly elected District 4 council member who defeated socialist Shaun Scott.

    "We know how," the other person responded. "Pack chambers like this."