The rent is too damn high. Whatcha-gonna-do? Are you going to try to set some limits on some kinds of increases? Or, are you gonna say messin’ with markets never works, take a robust supply-side approach and let the invisible hand work its magic?
Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant went head-to-head on rent control at Town Hall July 20 with libertarian housing wonk Roger Valdez and Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, and it was glorious.
Moderator Peter Steinbrueck laid out why the issue matters. Average rents in Seattle went up by 8.3 percent last year, faster than in any other U.S. city. A one-bedroom apartment that went for $600 in 2001 now goes for $1,200.
Working people are leaving Seattle in droves for cheaper rents. That means longer commutes, more traffic, lower quality of life and less diversity.
“We struggle to be a just city,” Steinbrueck said, “but we are failing.”
This was a real debate with real stakes, and the mood occasionally got a little ugly. Something about Roger Valdez just seems to make people angry. And mansplaining Manweller’s comparison of rent-control advocates to climate-change deniers did not go over well.
Licata, in contrast, was the cool and trusted uncle who’s seen it all and is here to tell you what he’s learned. I’ll be sorry as hell to see him go.
But it was Kshama Sawant’s night. Clear, concise and in control, she hammered home tight arguments that resonated again and again.
Perhaps the most unexpected moment of the evening came near the beginning, when she stopped talking 20 seconds before time was called.
The night was not without its other surprises. Valdez quoted the “Communist Manifesto” and said we needed to be fact-based while he and Manweller appealed over and over to supply-side dogma.
Licata and Sawant defied expectation by avoiding ideology and rooting their arguments in recent experience.
“Is the market working?” Licata asked. “I don’t think so.” To defer to the market, he said, was to “abandon people to the cold mechanics of investment decisions.”
“We need to be talking about reality,” he said, “not appealing to fear.”
Manweller warned of the rent-control apocalypse — with its loss of housing stock, dilapidation and abandonment, and compromised tax base — and pointed to Boston, New York and San Francisco, as if these cities’ experience offered all the negative evidence required.
Licata countered that 200 U.S. cities have some form of rent control. In most of them, where strategies are well adapted to local markets, it is working. Sawant said rent control recently passed in Berlin, and is necessarily on the rise in an increasingly unequal world.
The takeaway of the evening was that rent stabilization is not some magic spell that conjures utopia or disaster depending on the color of your politics. Blue good, red bad.
It is a tool, to be used alongside others. Currently, that tool is denied to Seattle and other localities by Olympia, where the control of money over votes is tightest.
We need to take that power back for ourselves.
Thirteen of the 24 members of the HALA committee thought rent control was a strategy worth pursuing. Those who had different interests voted the other way.
That’s not the end of the discussion. That would be stupid. The HALA recommendations merely represent what competing interests agree on.
This is not the where the organizing stops. It’s where it begins.
In a desperate moment late in the debate, Valdez asked the audience if they wanted anyone regulating the amount they could sell their iPads or Apple Watches for. People laughed. It was an absurd analogy.
Nobody has to have those things to survive. But when people don’t get housing, sometimes they die.
In the end, Sawant called for the movement we need, Manweller rhapsodized over democracy and the Athenian Agora, and most of us left with more or less the same opinions with which we had arrived.
But we were all a lot more informed and fired up, and that’s what it’s all about.