The Seattle City Council supports lifting a ban on rent control. No, wait. The Seattle City Council doesn’t support lifting a ban on rent control. It really depends on whether you’re asking councilmembers Kshama Sawant or Tim Burgess, respectively.
The Seattle City Council did, however, pass a resolution Sept. 21 that asks the legislature to allow cities to protect tenants from rent increases. Resolutions do not set policy, but represent official statements from the city council.
Sometimes, a resolution declares the city council’s intent to pursue a specific type of legislation, other times, a resolution will urge another governmental body to take action.
In this case, the resolution asks the Washington State Legislature to change the Revised Code of Washington to give local jurisdictions more control over rent policy. It asks that lawmakers in Olympia “allow local governments to propose ordinances that significantly increase the supply of rent-restricted units and that protect tenants from sudden and dramatic rent increases.”
The resolution highlights a state law from the 1980s that bans rent control across the state. Rent control refers to a broad set of strategies that restrict the cost of an apartment or house in a region — like what’s been implemented in New York City for example.
Proponents see the method as a way of stabilizing Seattle’s growing rent prices in the region. Opponents say that rent control could stifle growth and cause further harm to the region’s housing costs.
Seattle resident Beverly Aarons told the Seattle City Council Sept. 21 that her rent went up 70 percent after her building was sold. She said she couldn’t be a contributing member of the community when she’s being pushed out by rapidly rising housing costs. She used to volunteer in her neighborhood, but not anymore.
“I have to think about money,” Aarons said. “When I don’t have a place to live, my life is in jeopardy.”
To Burgess, who proposed this drafted language, this resolution was not a call for the controversial rent control.
“It merely asks the state Legislature to give us local solutions for our local conditions here in Seattle,” he said.
To Sawant, this is a huge victory for a growing movement that has been demanding rent control. The legislation is an alternative to her own resolution, which just barely eked out of committee on Sept. 17 without a recommendation to pass.
Sawant’s resolution more specifically asks the legislature to take out a state law that bans rent control across Washington. The ordinance also includes a much stronger introduction that outlines the problem in Seattle: that rent prices grew by 11 percent from 2010 to 2013, that people of color are suffering in Seattle and that the city would benefit from rent stabilization.
The Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee heard Sawant’s resolution on Sept. 17 where the vote to move it to full council was split 3–3. A tie sends it to the full council, but it was unclear whether it could have passed.
Burgess proposed the alternative language, which is not worded as strongly but proved more palatable to the Seattle City Council, which passed the proposal in an 8-to-1 vote. Councilmember John Okamoto was the only member who opposed.
It doesn’t matter which passed, Sawant said, as long as the basic message to the legislature remains the same: Remove the ban on rent control and let cities decide.
“I frankly don’t care whose name shows officially up as the initiator of the resolution,” Sawant said, “because I know regardless of whose name appears, really, the real initiator of this has been our movement. And regardless of our names, the passage of this resolution will end up empowering our movement.”
Rent control became Sawant’s next major campaign following the success she saw in raising the city’s minimum wage in 2014. She and others have called for laws that would limit how much rent can increase, tying increases to inflation, for example.