by Elizabeth Turnbull
On Nov. 19, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant gathered with tenants of the Rainier Court Apartments to pressure the landlord to commit to not increasing rent in 2022 and to fixing problematic living conditions — two demands of Sawant’s larger plan to implement rent control citywide, ahead of an impending recall election.
Tenants living in the Dakota and Courtland Place buildings of the Rainier Court Apartments, who spoke at the rally, said that their standard of living has been lowered by mold, long maintenance wait times, and questionable security.
The Rainier Court Apartments are managed by COAST, which is subcontracted by SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), a nonprofit that provides affordable housing in southeast Seattle. Activists at the rally spoke to rent increases and issues with landlords in the South End and in Seattle in general.
“I’ve been here for almost 30 years on the South End. I’ve seen so much change, so much gentrification,” said Rev. Angela Ying at the rally. “I’ve seen rents rise, I’ve seen people made homeless — and it’s not ‘homeless people,’ it’s ‘people made homeless.’”
Before the rally, SEED announced that it would rescind fall 2021 rent increases for tenants in one of the four complex buildings — a decision the nonprofit says came after listening to residents. In an email to the Emerald, SEED Executive Director Michael Seiwerath said that the organization focused only on essential maintenance issues during the pandemic and are working on making up for lost time.
“As we have for decades, SEED takes very seriously our commitment to providing quality housing that people can afford in Southeast Seattle,” Seiwerath wrote. “We will always address health and safety issues first at our properties.”
Sawant claims that residents of the Rainier Court Apartments, some of whom are fixed-income seniors and People of Color, have been concerned about living conditions since well before the pandemic.
She believes the recent efforts of her office and tenants, such as holding a previous rally and a press conference, as well as penning a public letter detailing their demands, have been responsible for SEED’s decision to rescind some of the rent increases they previously demanded.
“My office was contacted last month by a number of the tenants after they had struggled in vain for years to get SEED and COAST to address their concerns and then receiving unjust rent increases,” Sawant wrote in a statement to the Emerald. “It was absolutely a result of the outstanding organizing work of Rainier Court tenants, alongside my Council office, that SEED was pressured to rescind the rent increases for all four Rainier Court buildings and refund the rent increase that tenants had paid in October and/or November.”
Tenants of the Rainier Court Apartments are still demanding that their rents not be increased through 2022 and that “housing code violations … be fixed immediately,” according to Sawant’s office.
Sawant, currently the City Council’s only socialist, has been pushing for rent control for some time, including in some of her campaign slogans to win reelection in 2019. The biggest obstacle she faces in implementing any rent control legislation is that, legally, she can’t.
In 1981, the Washington State Legislature banned cities from implementing their own rent control measures, but according to Sawant’s logic, fighting for rent control in the meantime means that there will be an immediate response to rent costs when, and if, the ban is repealed.
“We are not fighting for rent control that looks like swiss cheese,” Sawant said at the rally, “with all kinds of loopholes from the corporate landlords.”
Sawant envisions regulating housing costs for anyone renting a space in the city, including student housing residents and people who live in group housing. While the term “rent control,” generally refers to limiting how much renters can be charged for housing, to Sawant it means that rent should go up only along with inflation rates.
On Nov. 30, the City Council Sustainability and Rental Rights Committee, which Sawant’s office chairs, discussed her rent control legislation.
“City Council members don’t want to discuss it,” said Sawant at the rally. “But they’re going to have to.”
Aside from potential pushback from colleagues and the State’s substantial ban on rent control for cities, Sawant’s plan to curb housing costs is under more of an imminent threat from a special recall election, set for Dec. 7, which may remove her from her post.
After opening City Hall to Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer of 2020, participating in a protest revealing the address of Mayor Jenny Durkan — who has protected her address for safety reasons as a former U.S. attorney — and for her use of City funds, a campaign emerged demanding that she be recalled from her City Council position.
Those who are a part of the campaign to remove her have said that they have witnessed rule-breaking behaviors and a lack of accountability on her behalf. Others say that the recall campaign is an effort to limit her work on progressive efforts to tax big businesses like Amazon and to pass legislation to benefit the average citizens, like her efforts to increase the minimum wage.
In advance of the election, Sawant has chosen rent control as her current point of emphasis.
“We are fighting for citywide rent control and it will not be easy to win,” Sawant said. “But we are in it to win it and we will do what it takes.”
Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.
📸 Featured Image: Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks during a rally at the Columbia Gardens and Dakota apartment buildings Oct. 2021. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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