Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant Position Rent Control as the New 15Now

As campaign season looms, the two members of the city council's activist wing aim to pass a resolution demanding the state legislature drop its ban.

Rent control. Linkage fees. City bonds. Building over parking lots.

When you pack the Seattle City Council chambers full of angry, wonkish poor people, this is what you get: a smorgasbord of proposed housing crisis solutions that must scare the living daylights out of developers and landlords.

That’s what you got, anyhow, last night at Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant’s Affordable Housing Town Hall—which, as it turned out, might as well have been called a Rent Control Town Hall. “This is ground zero,” said Councilmember Sawant, for a “housing justice” movement.

That movement’s first step? Pushing the Seattle City Council to pass a resolution demanding the state legislature give the city the option to enact rent control. (Actually instituting rent control would come later, if at all.) Rent control, also called “rent stabilization” by some advocates, is currently prohibited by state law. Only when that prohibition is lifted, said Councilmember Licata, will the city be able to “have an honest discussion about how to control rents.”

Using the same populist rhetoric that proved so effective in last year’s battle for the $15 minimum wage, Sawant roused a city council chamber overflowing with supporters—and one guy carrying a bike helmet who kept voicing ambiguous snark whenever she paused. (It was irritating.) Characteristically, Licata’s comments were more in the key of C-SPAN than Sawant’s Les Miserables-style pronouncements, but their difference in style was tempered by an agreement on the need for radical action to keep Seattle housing affordable for the poor and middle class.

“If anything is going to happen, it will be because we put pressure on the corporate politicians,” Sawant said.

Licata said that the resolution will be a tough sell, but he thinks he can muster the votes from his fellow council members. He added that he doesn’t think that members of the council who oppose the resolution are motivated by “money from big developers [so much as] they’re concerned about the perception that they are going to be not fair to developers.”

The forum was also addressed by five of the eight applicants for the interim city council seat: housing advocate Sharon Lee, former Housing and Urban Development administrator Sharon Maeda, political organizer Noel Frame, and civil rights attorneys Sheley Secrest and Alec Stephens. Lee and Secrest explicitly endorsed rent control, Maeda and Stephens seemed to endorse it, and Frame did not mention it during her remarks. The three absent applicants were former councilmember Jan Drago, former Human Services Department head John Okamoto, and former ferries administrator David Moseley. If you’re seeing an insiders/outsiders dichotomy here, well, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes.

During what amounted to a kind of council try-out, the applicants each presented a big idea or two. Lee said that landlords shouldn’t be able to increase rent or otherwise fiddle with a lease as long as their property violates housing code. Maeda suggested that the city turn church property into housing (though no further details were provided). Stephens entertained the very real possibility that the city will not be able to enact rent control in a timely fashion (if at all), and offered up the idea of a kind of temporary rent control, which would extend the amount of notice that a landlord has to give to tenants before upping the rent. Secrest focused on the creation of linkage fees (taxes on developers that pay for affordable housing) and the repurposing of vacant buildings to create more affordable housing. And while Frame had no specific policy suggestions, she said she’s personally been on the receiving end of obscene rent hikes.

Other ideas floated during public comment:
-Replace parking lots with housing, said monorail activist and spurned applicant Dick Falkenbury.
-Use the city’s bonding (i.e. borrowing) authority to finance affordable housing development, said Jon Grant, former director of the Tenants Union, member of Mayor Ed Murray's Housing Affordability and Livability Committee and campaign challenger to incumbent Tim Burgess.
-Use empty shipping containers to create stop-gap shelters for the homeless, said three precocious middle school students.
-Send people who don’t want to pay “their fair share” to Bellevue, said a commenter.
-Email each councilmember asking them to support the resolution to lift the rent control ban, said Licata, and include your address or zip code so they know whether you're a voter.
-Don’t live in Miami, because it sucks, said Stephens.

The council and the public will grill the eight applicants today at 4 p.m. Monday at 2 p.m. the councilmembers will choose their new colleague by majority vote. Sawant said there will be a rally for rent control on May 18 at 1 pm, by City Hall on 4th Avenue.

 
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