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Seattle Led the Country’s Minimum Wage Revolution. Can It Do the Same With Rent Control?

How Seattle socialist Kshama Sawant plans to do affordable housing right.

Major cities across the country may soon be finding inspiration from Seattle, the same city that last year sparked the movement for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The progressive push this time is for what affordable housing proponents see as a necessary antidote to skyrocketing rents, a phenomenon plaguing major cities across the country.

Seattle currently finds itself in the midst of a grand dilemma experienced by other metropolitan cities: How do you maintain growth while simultaneously preserving standards of affordability?

The answer, according to at least one Seattle City Council member, is simple: rent control.

Kshama Sawant, the council member who helped spearhead the adoption of a $15 minimum wage ordinance passed in June 2014, is now calling for the Council to implement a rent control measure she says is critical to Seattle maintaining affordable housing for its residents.

“We aren’t experiencing rent increases in this city. We’re experiencing rents skyrocketing, because landlords are free to engage in price gouging under a system with no rent stabilization,” said Sawant during an interview from her City Hall office.

Sawant said she is not calling for an all-out freeze on rent increases, but instead a ceiling that would prevent rates from soaring skyward, a distinction often lacking in discussions.

Many local housing affordability activists agree.

“Rent control is about regulating the rent market. Our city council needs to stop abdicating responsibility for affordable housing to private capital,” said Joshua Farris, formerly the executive director of Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction-Seattle, an anti-homelessness nonprofit.

Farris, who is now running for a City Council seat on the platform of “housing as a human right,” was recently evicted from his home after his landlord nearly doubled his rent in the course of three months.

“People determine the rules by which the market works. It’s not a question of do we need rent control. It’s a question of how strong should our rent control be here,” said Farris.

Sawant said she wants to see a policy where tenants would spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent, with increases being tied directly to the rate of inflation.

Lessons From San Francisco

Rent control often serves as the Kanye West of city land use policy – championed just as often as derided. Although on the books of more than 200 cities nationwide, it has a record of being somewhat of a mixed bag. The densely populated cities of New York and San Francisco have both suffered from soaring rents and gentrification, despite each employing variations of rent control.

In San Francisco, more than 172,000 of about 381,000 housing units are rent controlled. However, as of last April, tenants could expect to pay an average of $3,458 per month for an apartment – a historic high for the city.

“[Rent] here equates to about $40,000 a year. Which means you have to make at least two to three times that to live somewhat comfortably,” said Scott Weaver, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Tenants Union.

Weaver said that the reason rent control appears to be floundering in San Francisco is because of loopholes in the law that allow landlords to phase out those protections. The most pernicious of these loopholes, according to many affordable housing supporters, is a process known as vacancy decontrol.

Essentially it works as follows: Once a tenant moves out of a rent controlled apartment (or, once that person dies), a landlord is then permitted to raise the rent of the next tenant to whatever the market will allow; the apartment, in effect, is no longer subject to rent control. Weaver joins other tenants-rights activists in pointing to the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995 as establishing this practice.

“People who say rent control doesn’t work here are uninformed. It just needs to be strengthened,” said Weaver.

The case of San Francisco can serve as a valuable lesson for Seattle and other municipalities seeking to promote rent control policies, according to Sawant.

“The reason rent control supposedly doesn’t work is that it is being phased out in these other cities,” she said. “You have the real estate and landlord lobbies who have pushed through these various loopholes so as to water down rent control.”

She compared it to the current state of public education: “We consistently defund public schools, and then turn around and say they don’t work, we need free market solutions such as charter schools. The failure of policy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Sawant said she is not suggesting a freeze on rent prices, just a method to halt extreme price hikes, ensuring rent increases are small enough to avoid economic evictions while leaving landlords with enough profit to finance maintenance and operations.

Her proposal has attracted a hive of critics who say that rent control will not abate the housing affordability crisis the city faces, pointing to the failure of rent control measures in cities that have experienced an astronomical rise. The proposal would also face several obstacles before being put up for a council vote, as Washington state law currently prohibits such regulation.

But Sawant said she’s convinced that should a movement emerge from Seattle akin to the $15 minimum wage push, it will span the country.

“Struggles and victories, particularly victories that are achieved through organized struggle, are always contagious,” she said. “There’s no doubt that it will happen.”