The rent control crusader crusades on
The rent control crusader crusades on

Renters flocked to the first 2022 meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Sustainability and Renter’s Rights Committee to scorn their allegedly negligent, rent-gouging landlords. Many called for committee chair Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s favorite legislation-to-be, rent control.

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Three renters gave presentations about their landlords failing to address housing code violations. (There was also a presentation about the city’s contract with financial institutions as a means to demand they divest from fossil fuel companies – it is also the Sustainability Committee, after all.)

The committee did not discuss any specific bills, but in the meeting Sawant touched on possible plans to empower tenants. Somewhat surprisingly, Sawant welcomed a suggestion from her conservative vice chair, Councilmember Sara Nelson, to withhold city funds from nonprofit landlords who violate housing codes. Meanwhile, progressive Councilmember Tammy Morales expressed skepticism about focusing on a rent control measure at the city level.

For nearly a decade now, Sawant has been pushing rent control to no avail. But after defeating a recall attempt paid for in part by landlords and real estate interests, she told The Stranger that she believes more people want rent control now than ever before.

Her Democratic colleagues may need more convincing.

In general, the term “rent control” includes a spectrum of measures that regulate a landlord’s ability to raise rent, from strict rent controls that cap rent hikes at the cost of inflation to “rent stabilization” laws designed to prevent price gouging.

Jurisdictions in New York, New Jersey, California, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. have some form of rent control. In 2019, Oregon became the first state to pass statewide rent control, but with a rent hike cap of 7% plus the cost of inflation, that law fits more neatly into the anti-gouging side of the policy spectrum.

Washington’s Legislature banned rent control in 1981, but that pesky state law hasn’t prevented Sawant from fighting for the policy. After six years of calling for rent control in Seattle, in 2019 she published a draft version of an ordinance that would kick in if lawmakers in Olympia ever decided to lift the ban. In 2021, she introduced a new push for rent control that would limit rent raises to the rate of inflation. That bill also relied on state action before it could take effect.

In response to the presentation from the three tenants, who mentioned rent control as a solution to the problems they were having with their landlords, Morales voiced concern about the policy without directly naming it. She said it is true that Seattle’s tenant laws do not provide enough protections for renters, but she said “there are a lot of limitations to tenant’s rights that come from the state.”

“I am eager to figure out how we make those changes at the state level,” Morales said. Later, one of the three presenters pushed back on that comment and urged the council not to wait for the state to fight for rent control.

I asked Sawant’s next most progressive potential ally in the committee, Councilmember Andrew J. Lewis if he would support rent control. I will update if he responds. When he first came into office, he sang the tune Morales was singing during committee today, telling The Stranger he “likes the idea of the state lifting the current ban on rent control,” and that he was “more supportive of ‘anti-gouging legislation,” which would be much less strict than the kind of controls Sawant has been talking about imposing.

The more progressive members of the committee, (Sawant, Morales, and Lewis) outnumber the more conservative members, who are even more likely to shy away from Sawant’s trademark cause.

A more moderate committee member, Council President Debora Juarez, was absent in the vote last fall for Sawant’s bill requiring 180 days’ notice of rent increases, which some landlords said amounted to rent control.

Nelson has not yet solidified her perspective as vice chair of the committee, but she did not fully embrace rent control during her campaign, in which she appealed mostly to homeowners. In an October debate, Nelson expressed support for state-level rent control legislation, according to MyNorthwest.

It comes as no surprise that Nelson and Sawant would have differing perspectives, as many of the supporters who funded Nelson and the conservative slate also funded Sawant’s recall.

With no council members jumping out of their chairs to work on Sawant’s pie in the sky, it looks like the council will still need convincing to pass a trigger law on rent control. Sawant said she won’t be the one to convince the council, though.

“I'm not waiting for some stars to align and these Democrats to suddenly be in support of rent control. Without a real fight back from renters, that is not going to happen,” Sawant said over the phone.

Right now, Sawant said she and her office are building power. In her work with the unhappy tenants of Rainier Court, she noticed their complaints started with unaddressed repairs and rent raises, but, as tenants started to organize, fight, and, importantly, win, Sawant saw the tenants dream bigger with their demands. This is crucial to winning rent control, she said in a phone interview.

“That's what we're doing right now,” Sawant said. “We're trying to take people from what we know has really strong support and then organize it into an active struggle that we know we will need in order to win rent control.”