Nearly 35 years ago, when trickle down economics was the bright shiny new idea that was going to make America great again, Seattle activists ran a rent control initiative and got their asses kicked all the way to Olympia. Renters and Owners Organized for Fairness got out-fundraised by a factor of four and lost by a landslide.
After their victory in Seattle, the real estate industry took the $400,000 they raised from across the state — well over $1.1 million in current dollars — and pressed their case at the Statehouse.
Rent control has been illegal in the state of Washington ever since.
On the surface, challenging the longtime state ban on rent control seems like a no-brainer. According to rentjungle.com, a data company that tracks rental costs in major cities, the average cost of a Seattle apartment rose from $1,694 in September 2014 to $1,897 last August.
That’s a $203 jump in a single year. The same period the year before shows an increase of $138. That’s a 20 percent increase over the past two years.
A 2013 national study that was prominently referenced in the new strategic plan of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County found that for every $100 of increased rental costs, urban homelessness rises by 15 percent.
The local evidence supports its conclusion. Despite the 6,314 units of permanent housing with supportive services that were created in King County since 2004, unsheltered homelessness rose by 21 percent this year and 14 percent the year before.
The nonprofit sector and local government cannot build enough housing to make up for market-driven losses in affordability. Not when our ability to regulate that market is preempted at the state level.
And not when that market is geared to the most affluent renters in the city.
The Seattle Times reports that, as the local high-tech economy draws new, well-paid workers, nearly all of the recent growth in Seattle’s rental market comes from those earning more than $100,000 annually.
Conversely, the number of renter households earning below $50,000 annually, as well as those earning between $50,000 and $75,000, have each declined by 3 percent according to the most recent data available.
Those are middle-income renters opting to live elsewhere. When it comes to rising housing costs, growing homelessness and loss of diversity in Seattle, the writing is on the wall.
So, to challenge rent control is to challenge the same interests that have dominated our politics for many decades. Those interests have been well represented on our city council, and as recently as last week, the math for change was not promising.
In a housing committee vote, the reliably progressive council wing of Licata-Sawant-O’Brien voted to take the rent control issue to Olympia. The lame-duck conservative wing, represented by Godden, Rassmussen and Okamoto, dismissed the resolution as a “distraction” from the mayor’s housing agenda and voted to oppose.
The tie vote meant that the council would receive the resolution without a housing committee recommendation, and passage would depend on how the three remaining members voted.
Burgess had already declared his opposition; Harrell was a tentative yes, and Bagshaw looked like the swing vote.
The resolution was widely expected to fail, leaving the next phase of the rent control fight up to the November elections and Tim Burgess, as the one councilmember opposing the resolution that is vulnerable to challenge, with a big target on his back.
His opponent, former Tenant’s Union Director Jon Grant, would have taken that no vote straight to the bank.
So, Burgess did something smart. He introduced a similar but more neutral resolution of his own. As council president, he put it up for a vote on the same day and got it passed nearly unanimously. In doing so, Burgess neutralized rent control as a defining reelection issue.
This round was well played, but the ones being played here might be the voters. Has the leopard changed his spots? That depends, I suppose, on how close you look.