by Will Sweger
Tuesday morning inside the concrete and glass walls of the Washington State Convention Center was a completely unremarkable scene. Men and women, dressed in business casual, their names displayed hanging on lanyards around their necks, made rounds on the carpeted hallways and complained about uncomfortable chairs.
Then, over the din of the traffic roaring by on I-5 below, protesters drummed on metal trash bins and chanted “Down, down with the landlord lobby. Up, up with housing justice.” Holding signs, they climbed the stairs from Union Street to Ellis Plaza. The convention attendees gathered at the windows with their phones to take pictures of the passing crowd. Seattle Police, leaning on bicycles, positioned themselves between the glass wall and the protesters.
Inside, over 1,500 people attended TRENDS, an annual rental housing management conference hosted by the Rental Housing Association of Washington, the Institute of Real Estate Management and the Washington Landlord Association. Outside, representatives from 15 activist organizations converged to demand increased renter protections.
Mariah, a mother of three who has lived in Rainier Beach for six years was one of the first people to speak before the gathered crowd. She said she was only able to get her landlord to make repairs to her home after she spoke out to the city council and local media.
Other speakers included a retiree who rents a basement apartment in her house to a union school bus driver for less-than-market rates. She advocated for backyard cottages, homeownership, and expanding tenant protections. Another speaker, representing the Tenants’ Union of Washington State, claimed renters’ rights are also being eroded in Spokane.
Esther “Little Dove” John, a resident elder of Beacon Hill facing eviction from her apartment, took the microphone to describe her plight. She advocated for keeping family housing on Beacon Hill, the chance for displaced individuals to return to their neighborhoods and 25 percent affordable units in new developments.
Inside TRENDS, topics on the agenda varied from sessions entitled “Does Section 8 Housing Make Sense in the Current Market” to symposiums on eviction law and even what property owners need to know about cannabis laws.
A small group of protesters infiltrated the event and unfolded signs smuggled in their pockets saying “Support Tenants’ Rights.” After shouting about the need to address the homelessness crisis, they were led away from the conference one by one by event security. One such protester described several of the attendees of the luncheon jeering him on the way out while some of the food service workers smiled in support.
Teresa Mosqueda, the newly-minted city councilmember for Position 8, declared herself the only renter on the city council and announced her support for a tenants’ bill of rights protecting elders, women, seniors, people of color, immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities and workers in the city.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant took the stage to praise the unions present before launching into the implications of the fight for rent control in the state. “It is important that we are here because the movement we are building will create a legacy of housing justice, not just to solve the crisis that we face immediately, but for all the regular working-class renters who will come after us,” she said.
Sawant has advocated for rent control in the past, even going so far as supporting rent control for small businesses in commercial leases as a workaround to the state law passed in 1981 outlawing residential controls. She declared, “Now it’s time to launch a powerful state-wide fight for rent control and that fight starts right here in Seattle.” Noting state Democrats have a majority in all houses of government in Olympia after the November election, Sawant said they “can no longer blame the Republicans for inaction.”
State Representative Nicole Macri spoke last to the gathered crowd. “The sun is shining on us today because it is a new day for renters’ power” she proclaimed. “Homelessness is now an issue that touches every single community in Washington.”
To cheers from the protesters, she announced her intention to sponsor a bill to repeal the ban on rent control in the state. Speaking to the struggle ahead, she said, “this will not be an easy fight, landlords have strong power in Olympia.”
Will Sweger is a contributor at the South Seattle Emerald and a resident of Beacon Hill. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle and Borgen Magazine. Find him on Twitter @willsweger