Council Passes Rent Control Resolution, But Not the One You Think

In a last-minute switcheroo, Burgess' alternative resolution sails through council.

Last week we reported how city councilmember Sally Bagshaw appeared to hold the deciding vote on a resolution calling on the state legislature drop its ban on rent regulation. Yesterday brought a fresh twist: such a resolution passed, but in an unexpected way.

During last week’s committee vote on legislation asking the state legislature to allow local regulation of rents, the council’s lefty bloc (Kshama Sawant, Nick Licata, and Mike O’Brien) reached a 3-3 stalemate with retiring councilmembers Tom Rasmussen, Jean Godden, and John Okamoto.

In our coverage of that meeting, SW predicted that the rent control resolution was a sure thing---next year if not this one. We turned out to be right, but not in the way that we expected.

Council president Tim Burgess introduced an alternative resolution Monday morning; it passed almost unanimously during the council’s afternoon meeting. Burgess’ alternative was substantially similar to Sawant and Licata’s: both resolutions urged the legislature to remove the statewide ban on any kind of local regulation of rents.

But Burgess’ resolution was much more rhetorically moderate. Whereas the “WHEREAS”es in Licata and Sawant’s proposal opined at length on the causes and effects of Seattle’s affordable housing crisis and includes the line “But for the prohibition [on rent regulations]...this council would endeavor to design and enact ordinances or other provisions which regulate the amount of rent appropriate to the City of Seattle,” Burgess’ brief list of “WHEREAS”es talk about “policy tools” for addressing “rising housing costs,” and his actual resolution asks Olympia to “allow local governments to propose ordinances that...protect tenants from sudden and dramatic rent increases” while promising not to screw up the housing market in the process.
Sawant and her army of supporters are calling the passage of Burgess’ resolution a victory in which an establishment politician reacted to overwhelming public pressure. “Regardless of whose name is on the resolution, the whole movement [pushing for rent control] knows whom the credit belongs to,” says Sawant. “The credit belongs to the movement.”

Sawant made rent control a central plank of her 2013 council bid, and the passage of this resolution is similar to 2013’s $15 minimum wage deal (widely credited to Ed Murray). In both cases, Sawant and her supporter applied sustained public pressure on elected leaders, and in both cases those leaders eventually agreed to a diluted, but basically intact, version of their demands.

Burgess is mum on how much credit Sawant & Co. can take for this resolution, but he does think that “we have seen a lot of political theater around this issue, a lot of sloganeering,” he says. Asked whether this resolution is consistent with his earlier statement of opposition to lifting the state ban on rent regulation, Burgess says yes, because his resolution asks the legislature to “modify or repeal” the ban and does not endorse classic rent control (that is, rent freezes).

There are a couple different ways of reading the tea leaves behind Burgess’ move. One is to see him as a dealmaker who saved the council from a pointless battle by introducing a compromise that everyone can agree to. Another is that he’s insulating himself against opponent Jon Grant, whose campaign against Burgess rests largely on the claim that Burgess is weak on affordable housing policy. Yet a third take is that Burgess and his allies want to resolve this issue before the general election in October and November, so that Sawant and other lefties can’t stoke popular outrage around it.

The sole No-vote yesterday was John Okamoto, the interim councilmember who is replacing Sally Clark until November (and whom Sawant castigated during his nomination process). He also voted No on Licata and Sawant’s resolution in committee last week. “I voted no on both for pretty much the same reasons,” Okamoto says. “If we’re going to spend our scarce political capital to move something in Olympia, we ought to know what we’re proposing. And it was pretty clear to me...that we need to do more homework, and we aren’t clear what we’re asking for.” Okamoto says that pushing for rent regulation authority could distract from more important legislative priorities, like getting Olympia to fund public education.

The other two No-votes last week were by Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen, both of whom supported Burgess’ alternative resolution. Godden’s office had no comment on her switched vote. Rasmussen explained his switched vote this way: “What I’ve said all along is I do like local control, and I’d like to see the state appeal that preemption,” he says. “The concern that I had with the one that was promoted by councilmember Sawant…[was that it] committed us too much to the certainty that rent control was an answer.”

Now that the resolution has passed, the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations will begin lobbying for it in Olympia. State Senator Pramila Jayapal (D-37) says that an official ask from the state’s biggest city gives her and other legislators and housing advocates the “impetus and leverage” they need to begin pushing to repeal the rent regulation ban when the legislature reconvenes next year. She says that she hopes to bundle repeal of the ban with other housing reforms in legislation, and introduce the entire package in January.

“In order for us to do something in the state legislature, it is very, very helpful to hear from cities like Seattle...that are having problems instituting the kinds of policies that they’d want to institute in order to make housing affordable,” she says. “Cities are taken very seriously in the state legislature.”

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