by Justin Carder
(This article originally appeared on Capitol Hill Seattle Blog and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Capitol Hill Seattle Blog (CHS) was there when an upstart challenger squared off with incumbent Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin in a debate on rent control held at Seattle Central that would set the tone for the major political upset that would remove the veteran lawmaker from office a few weeks later.
That win built on causes like the $15 minimum wage, a tax on big business, and controlling rents came at the start of Kshama Sawant’s political career in the city.
“We’ve done $15 an hour and taxing big business. We haven’t done rent control,” Sawant told CHS on Wednesday, May 5.
“Between 2013 and 2019, there was a huge shift in broad consciousness. … Now, in post-pandemic, it is even greater. People’s eyes are opening,” the now longest-serving member on the Council said.
Eight years later, as she faces the ultimate political fight to keep her place on the council, Sawant says it is time to complete her initial goals in the city, announcing in a rally at 22nd Avenue and East Union Street a renewed push of her bid to prepare Seattle with rent control legislation that would slow and sometimes prohibit yearly increases in rent by tying a cap to inflation and pressuring lawmakers in Olympia to lift the State ban that forbids it.
Wednesday morning, Sawant was joined by activists and community members to announce a renewed rent control push and the launch of a major petition effort calling for the protections that she says is based on the early efforts to show support for the Amazon tax.
“Working people have lost housing. They’ve lost savings. They’ve lost security. They’ve had to move, to find new housing, to double up with others. They’ve had to scramble and give up basic amenities just to keep a roof over their heads. Small businesses have also taken a severe brunt from this pandemic and the economic devastation of the last year,” Sawant told the small crowd assembled outside a Central District apartment building developed by Lake Union Partners. “Meanwhile, billionaires and multimillionaires have enriched themselves during the COVID pandemic. Corporate landlords have raked in millions.”
The renewed bid picks up the work done by Socialist Alternative and Sawant’s office to push rent control forward in 2019 with legislation that would tie a cap on rent increases to the rate of inflation. Sawant’s rent control would link the maximum rent increase to the inflation rate, which was above 3% as recent as 2018 but has fallen below 2% during the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That thrust two years ago in the ongoing battle for rent control in Seattle gave way to Sawant’s successful battle to retain her seat in the November 2019 election. By 2020, the city’s shifting political tides put the effort to tax Amazon on the frontburner. The pandemic sealed the deal. By summer, Seattle had a new payroll tax and Sawant, another victory like $15 an hour — a far-left movement translated into a version palatable at Seattle City Hall.
Now she says it is time for Socialist Alternative and her supporters to renew the rent control fight as the city emerges from the pandemic, and Sawant says landlords are looking to cash in. Sawant cited an ApartmentList.Com study that found that rents are already on the rise, saying that between January and April 2021, “rents across the board in Seattle for apartments of all sizes increased by 9%, an annualized rate of more than 40%.”
“This puts rents on track to more than rebound in a very few months from the temporary 2020 drop, and to continue soaring at pre-pandemic crisis levels,” a press release from Sawant’s office reads.
Meanwhile, this week, the Recall Sawant campaign trying to remove Sawant from office began the process of collecting the more than 10,000 signatures across District 3 to put a recall of the three-term councilmember on the ballot.
Organizers have outlined multiple acts they say warranted recall including using city resources to promote a Tax Amazon initiative, allowing demonstrators inside City Hall during a protest last June, and marching to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s home address kept secret due to her past role as a federal prosecutor. A fourth charge of allowing Socialist Alternative to influence her office’s employment decisions was rejected by the State Supreme Court.
The Kshama Solidarity campaign says the charges are untrue and that the recall is part of a “broader assault on democracy.”
The recall battle is set to play out across the summer and to next November’s General Election — or beyond. The rent control fight will open up a second front.
There was no mention of the recall in Sawant’s remarks Wednesday morning. Instead, the focus was on equity and tenant rights from the roster of speakers who followed in support of the new rent control campaign including Reverend Robert Jeffrey, senior pastor at New Hope Missionary Baptist, police accountability activist Castill Hightower, and Amzi Jeffs, a head steward at UAW Local 4121.
Also speaking was Shirley Henderson, owner of Squirrel Chops coffee at 22nd Avenue and East Union Street where the event was hosted. Sawant said Wednesday that her rent control campaign will also include separate legislation for commercial rent control “to help struggling small businesses that are confronting the same displacement and gentrification pressures that working-class renters face.”
“There is no State ban on commercial rent control, so there are no excuses for the City Council to delay on this measure,” Sawant said. “I have asked the City Council’s technical staff to develop this legislation, and they will be doing that over the next couple of months.”
Sawant staff said the commercial rent control draft legislation is not yet available.
But there is also major work to be done on the residential rent control front which must overcome a statewide ban on rent control.
Rent control, in some cases also called rent stabilization, means limiting rent increases. In some cities, it can be tied to inflation, or the cap can apply only per tenancy or beyond the duration of a tenancy, and come with or without restrictions on evictions. Some include only buildings of a certain age and exempt new buildings. In some instances, landlords have found ways to work around rent control by converting rental units to condos, for example. Other so-called “loopholes” include rent control not applying to accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and single-family homes. Another famous loophole is “vacancy decontrol,” which means landlords can raise the rent after a tenant leaves a rent-controlled apartment, charging whatever they want to the next tenant.
Sawant’s proposed legislation would establish the annual cap and, her office says, close the many possible loopholes. The bill would also create a rent control board empowered to decide on exemptions to rent control limits in the case of emergencies like natural disasters that cause financial hardship for the building owner.
But for it to matter, the State’s ban on residential rent control needs to be undone. The legislation, backed by pro-developer lobbyists, dates back to 1981. State legislators will have to repeal that ban. Sawant’s draft legislation says that rent control will go into effect in Seattle as soon as the statewide ban is lifted.
Wednesday morning, Sawant said CHS should ask state representatives like Sen. Jamie Pedersen and Rep. Nicole Macri why they weren’t at the rally to kick off the new campaign — not her. “The question is, what side the Democrats are on?” Sawant said. “It’s a question for them, really.”
But it has been two years since her last major push for the controls. Has anything changed since 2019 — and 2013 — with Sawant’s approach and her collaboration with the state leaders needed to change the State’s approach to rent control?
The councilmember bristled at the question. “Your focus on my personal relationship is completely misplaced,” Sawant said, adding that she has “an unprecedented record of delivering on promises.”
“I am with the people,” Sawant said.
With $15 an hour and an Amazon tax under her belt, it is difficult to argue with her.
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