By Anne Althauser
I came home from work last Monday night to find my apartment broken into and all my electronics stolen. While the first thoughts flooding into my mind were of the irreplaceable items I had on my laptop, which I will likely never get back, my next thought was that I could not possibly afford to move. In the midst of this moment of violation that notion soon monopolized my thoughts. Let me back up and say I don’t live in a bad place—I share a 2-bedroom basement apartment on Capitol Hill, and while I never expected to be almost 30 with a masters degree and still living in basement apartments, the rent is locked in with our yearly lease renewal and is the only thing I can afford. I care about rent control because I don’t know what it’s like to spend only 30% of my income on rent.
I determined a broken window was not going to be enough to keep me from heading to a debate about this very topic, and as it turned out, I wasn’t alone in this. With affordable rent being at the top of most Seattle residents minds it was no surpriseTown Hall was at capacity last Monday night, as Seattle City Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata debated Washington State Representative Matt Manweller and Growth and Development Lobbyist Roger Valdez on this very topic.
While there were a few foot-in-mouth moments from those opposed to rent control, like when Manweller said, “we need poor people,” there were two very different trains of thought for how to make Seattle livable for everyone. From the side opposed to rent control, the mind frame was really about the red flags, existing laws, and what other cities have tried and failed. Those pushing for rent control saw a problem that required a unified response to fix. They asked why our current laws and policies existed in the first place, and wanted to mindfully create a society that functions for the people by the people.
Moderated, albeit comically at times, by former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, each side got to voice opening arguments, answer four predetermined questions, and end with a closing statement. We got a feel for what side of the rent control aisle the room sat on early on as Steinbrueck opened the debate polling the audience on who was for or against rent control. About 90% of the room raised their hands for the former, coming to the debate supporting rent control. Those against rent control were quickly revealed as a scattered 10% raised their hands in opposition. My observations of the debate follow:
The Opening Arguments
Licata and Sawant stated they believe government interventions work and healthy economic growth will come with sewing the social fabric of the city together. They proposed making rent control a part of a comprehensive proposal. According to them, the rent hikes we’ve seen should be illegal. Manweller and Valdez argued rent control was not legal , would not solve the housing crisis, and did not deliver what it promises. They proposed building more housing on public land to support Seattle’s population boom.
QUESTION 1: What are main causes of the affordable housing crisis in Seattle?
AGAINST: Valdez argued that we have killed micro housing in Seattle and “created our own problem,” so Manweller proposed that Seattle should do what the city of Ellensburg did to support the influx of 10,000 college students who move to Ellensburg every year: rezone Seattle to build micro housing (aka dorm rooms) on public land. The duo believed that more housing would equate to rent prices being driven down via the free market.
FOR: Licata argued that developers build solely for profit—subsequently charging the highest rents possible because they can get away with it. So” of course micro housing hasn’t taken off here, it’s not affordable and who wants to live in a dorm room as an adult?” Sawant agreed with her opponents that we do need an additional supply of housing along with changes in zoning rules, but asked why our city was losing the pre-existing stock of housing that was once affordable for families. She said the main cause of the affordable housing crisis in Seattle is greedy developers and landlords (yes, there are slumlords here in Seattle).
QUESTION 2: What have been the effects of rent control?
FOR: Licata and Sawant argued rent control helps people of mid and lower socioeconomic status afford rent in the city, and stops sudden hikes in rent—as has been shown in New York City. Rent control has not worked in every city because of loopholes that allow for rent-controlled units to be phased out, and tenants are unable to exercise their rights. They asserted that if we build a comprehensive policy that doesn’t allow for these loopholes and tenants have a voice in this matter, rent control will work in Seattle.
AGAINST: Manweller and Valdez countered that rent control reduces housing stock because it forces landlords to turn apartments into condos and sell them for absurd profit. They cited studies published in 1995, 1998, and 2002 to support this argument. (It should be noted that none of the studies cited were from Seattle or less than 10 years old, therefore it goes without saying that more research is necessary).
QUESTION 3: Without rent control, can the market make housing affordable?
AGAINST: Valdez and Manweller put forth that INDEED, the market can make housing affordable if more housing is developed—especially micro housing. Valdez told a story to support this argument about soldiers returning from World War II and being unable to afford housing in New York City, as a result affordable housing was built for them in Levittown. (The problem with this case study they presented is that returning soldiers at that time wanted to live in NYC… not Levittown. Please do not build a bunch of affordable housing in Monroe and tell me this is the same thing as living in the city.)
FOR: Licata and Sawant stated that no city has or can rely solely on the market to make rents affordable, micro housing is not a solution for families, and whatever policies are introduced need to be combined with rent regulation—they cannot not merely hope for lower rent as a side effect. They brought up that thousands of people are moving to Seattle every year for well paying tech jobs at unnamed online marketplaces. (Those are the people who can afford to pay higher rent than those of us who have grown up in the city or work in any industry other than tech—capitalism always beats out the poor and more housing with a few allotted units for low-income folks (probably located in the basement without a view and no yard, here’s looking at you Yesler Terrace), will not cut it. The market fails us time and again, let’s please not rely on it to keep roofs over our heads.)
QUESTION 4: What will be the impact of rent control?
FOR: Licata said we can develop rent control that works for Seattle without it being dependent on what other cities have done. Sawant added that the argument is not simply about rent control but about much more—such as a citywide millionaire tax. (The effects of taxing the rich would be a culturally vibrant, dynamic community—who doesn’t want that? If we want to keep Seattle alive and weird and truly Seattle, we have got to act NOW.)
AGAINST: Manweller attempted to argue but instead supported Sawant and Licata’s point when he said that Nick Licata wanted to take money out of the pocket of private developers (actually, we’d like to keep the money from going to their pockets in the first place). Manweller went on to say that in order to have a “diverse” city, we need poor people here.
As the debate drew to a close, those opposed to rent control made one final argument for additional construction and using data and case studies from other cities to see that rent control does not work. While I would agree that case studies and research could help inform the way we make policy here in Seattle, Seattle is not San Francisco and it is certainly not New York City.
Sawant ended the debate by saying that the people of Seattle needed to gear ourselves up for a fight and band together like we did to pass minimum wage. Rent control will affect the whole community, therefore this will take the effort of the entire community.
While a “winner” of the debate may not have been declared on the spot, the standing ovation at the end was FOR a rent control movement.
I love this city and am proud to call it home as so many others do, but it’s hard to say what will come of this debate, if anything. I believe in the power of Seattle movement builders and the community standing up for their rights. Unfortunately, we are consistently shown the power of money in decision-making and the lack of accountability on the parts of city, county, and state policy makers. Unless my whole community would like to pick up and move to a new Levittown with me, I urge us to stay and fight for our city—our socially cohesive, culturally thriving Seattle we can envision and rebuild together.
If you agree that WA should lift the state ban on rent control, visit sawant.seattle.gov to support Councilmembers Sawant and Licata’s resolution (for the opposition’s stance you visit Smart Growth Seattle).
Anne Althauser writes a regular column for the Emerald and has her MPH from the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.
Featured Photo Credit: Alex Garland