Sawant and supporters push for rent control in Seattle

VIDEO: Movement to pressure state lawmakers to life ban on rent control

On Tuesday, a Seattle City Council committee will hear arguments for instituting rent control.  Currently, rent control laws are banned at the state level.

A proposal being presented at 2 p.m. is being pushed by the Seattle Renters Commission.

The commission is a group of 15 people that serve as advisors on rent to the mayor and City Council.

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Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant joined with housing advocates, union representatives and other supporters last week to announce a push for rent control in Seattle.

Sawant’s proposed policies come in the form of two ordinances. One would provide relief for low-income renters being forced out by large rent hikes and the other would form the basis of the city’s rent control policy and take effect if the statewide ban on rent control is lifted.

“We’re not allowed to live in this city because it’s completely unaffordable,” immigration activist Maru Mora-Villalpando said.

“These rent increases are outrageous, where it's evicting people and putting them on the street,” Violet Lavatai, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, said.

As part of Sawant’s proposed rent control policy, rents across the city would be allowed to increase no more than inflation every year. The policy would cover all residential homes, from rooms in houses to units in apartment buildings, and rental homes would remain rent-controlled in between tenants so that rent couldn’t spike after one tenant left.

“Building a fighting movement to win rent control in Seattle this year-- effective the moment the state ban is repealed-- will put immense pressure on Olympia to repeal the ban,” Sawant said.

“It’s not just a whimsical idea,” said Shirley Henderson, owner of Squirrel Chops restaurant. “It’s a necessity for survival of so many of us.”

Henderson is advocating for rent control for residents and on the commercial side, to allow small business owners like herself a chance to thrive in Seattle.

“Landlord and developer profits should not take priority over the needs of our small businesses-- of renters and workers in this city,” she said.

Sawant wants to require landlords to financially help people if they raise their rent by 10 percent or more in a year and the tenants make less than or up to 80 percent of the area median income. For an individual, that would be around $53,760, according to the latest numbers from Sawant’s office. For a family of four, it would be $76,800. The ordinance would require a landlord to pay the renter three times the previous rent—enough for first month, last month, and security deposit at a new unit—so the tenant can move somewhere else.

Sawant said the City Council could pass that ordinance tomorrow if it wished.

“There is no legal barrier to that!” she said. “So you have no excuse to say, ‘Well, the state ban!’”

“What do landlords think of this suggested policy?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked Sean Martin, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington.

“That is going to be crippling for a lot of our members,” he said. “I think that they'd be scared to stay in the industry, stay in the business, to be honest.”

Martin said the association represents more than 3,500 landlords in Seattle alone.

“Our members are average 9 to 5 workers,” he said. “They’re teachers, they’re engineers, they work for the city.”

Martin is concerned about any limits on the association's ability to adjust rents based on unexpected costs. He said property taxes have increased by double digits and landlords have to adjust somehow.

For example, at one 20-unit building at 301 Summit Avenue East, the association said, the property tax bill increased 27 percent.

“Last summer, the University of Washington did a landlord study and they found that 40 percent of owners said that they were either going to sell or were thinking of selling due to city regulation,” he said.

Martin said the association is working at the state level for property tax breaks for owners who commit to keeping their rents low.

In the meantime, Sawant said her office will launch a petition and get feedback on the rent control policy with activists, workers and labor unions to prepare for a housing summit in July. They plan to introduce the two ordinances in the summer as well.