Imagine a time and place where organized tenants are bitterly disappointed at a ruling that limits rent hikes to 1 percent on a one-year lease or 2.5 percent on a two-year lease.
This was New York City, just last summer, and the ruling came by a hotly contested 5-to-4 vote of the Rent Guidelines Board.
This — the lowest increase in New York’s 45-year history of rent stabilization — was a defeat for the rent-freeze campaign.
According to an article in New York’s Gothamist, more than 100 angry tenants surged toward the stage after the vote chanting: “No freeze, no peace.”
If this is what defeat looks like, I’ll take it.
But it can’t happen here, because in Washington state, rent control is forbidden by law.
To understand why, you have to go back to 1980, when Renters and Owners Organized for Fairness ran a rent-control campaign in Seattle.
The timing was not great. Ronald Regan was president and deregulation was in the air.
Developer and landlord interests raised more than $400,000 and defeated the ballot initiative. They then took their ample leftover dough to Olympia and made sure this would never happen again. The state law against rent control passed in 1981.
Ever since, this affordability tool has been off the table in our state.
City Council members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant have drafted a resolution that states RCW 35.21.830, the Washington rent control ban, is “an impediment to fair housing in the City of Seattle” and should be revisited.
The resolution also calls for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to analyze whether the state ban on rent control leads to increased segregation and is in conflict with the Fair Housing law.
The 400 or so tenants who turned out for the rent board meeting in New York were mostly from the heavily black and Latino Southwest Bronx and West Harlem.
There’s a reason for this.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2013, blacks and Latinos earned 25 to 46 percent less on average than their white counterparts.
In Seattle in 2009, poverty rates for Latinos and African Americans were 18 and 26 percent respectively, roughly two to three times the 9 percent poverty rate for whites.
Seattle is among the 10 least affordable cities in America. Between 2010 and 2013, rents have risen by 11 percent, the fastest rate in the nation.
Housing speculation in a hot market is responsible for the worst of these increases. In 2014 alone, investors spent $3.8 billion buying up apartment buildings in Seattle.
With the right to limitless rent increases protected from Olympia, some people have seen rent rise by as much as 50 to 146 percent in a single year.
This has led to a loss of diversity in Seattle, as working people have been forced to move to outlying areas. According to Seattle’s proposed 2015-2017 consolidated plan, “The private market continues to drive a decline in housing affordability … this translates into reduced housing for protected classes, who are disproportionately low-income and racial minorities.”
Critics of rent stabilization point out that more housing is the answer to higher rents, but anyone can see that all the new apartment buildings and condos dotting our skyline have not had that effect.
The 65 recommendations of the Mayor’s housing affordability committee would reduce some regulation that leads to higher building costs, remove barriers to solutions like “mother-in-law” units built by existing homeowners and mandate the production of affordable units as part of the cost of development.
But these recommendations do little to prevent the rental profiteering that is turning Seattle into a playground for the mostly white and affluent.
When state law contributes to loss of housing affordability and a pattern of increased housing segregation, that law needs to be reexamined.
The Licata-Sawant resolution is a first step on the long road to a more fair housing and rental market. You can find links to the full resolution and the petition to “Lift the Washington State Ban on Rent Control” at seattle.gov/council/sawant.
Read the resolution. Sign the petition. These are small steps that can make the change we need possible.