Rent control advocates at a rally headed by Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant. (Kshama Sawant)
Rent control has not been an option in Washington State since 1981, when the state Legislature made it illegal, and banned cities and towns from enacting rent regulations of their own.
There has been talk in Seattle of lifting the state ban in previous years, and even legislation in Olympia that died with Democratic majorities in both chambers in 2018.
Now, with a shortage of affordable housing and homelessness at crisis levels, more cities and states are looking at rent control as a potential fix, at least in part.
Oregon passed a statewide rent control bill early in 2019, and California lawmakers are considering one of their own. New York state and New York City just strengthened and expanded existing rent control laws to protect tenants, which led to a Constitutional challenge in federal court.
All of those changes, chatter, and efforts in other states such as Colorado show momentum for rent control reform is building across the country. That was recently picked up by Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who is making the issue a central platform of her re-election campaign.
Sawant’s push for rent control
Sawant has pushed the issue in years past, and is advocating for it again this year with support from others on the council.
On Monday, the council’s intent to lobby the state Legislature to lift the statewide ban was one several provisions included in the unanimous passage of the local Green New Deal, but only after a tweak to the language.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold supported the effort to lift the ban, but worried wording of the measure would hurt its chances.
“I’m concerned about using the language ‘rent control,’” Herbold said.
“I think it’s really important that we change the frame of this conversation if we’re going to be successful in Olympia,” she continued. “Rent control means a particular thing in people’s minds, and what’s important to me is not to implement any particular version of rent control, but what’s really important is to remove the statewide prohibition that already exists in state law prohibiting any city or any county from regulating rent in anyway.”
That led to an amendment from councilmember Abel Pacheco to change the wording so it didn’t include rent control.
Sawant had concerns.
“It would be a grave mistake on our part to think that somehow we are going to make any progress towards housing justice by trying to cleverly finesse language such as that it fools the real estate lobby into thinking this is not actually rent control,” Sawant said, adding that regardless of language, there would be a fight ahead with the real estate lobby. She also noted that any effort to water down the language would only confuse everyday people, leading to a less support for the measure.
In the end, the change in wording was approved with a final product that says the city plans to “work with other cities, counties, and statewide organizations to advocate for changes to state law to provide more tools for local control to stabilize rents.”
The original, unedited version stated an intent to “work with other statewide organizations to advocate for changes to state law regarding rent control.”
An effort to lobby state lawmakers to lift the rent control ban is expected on the council’s legislative agenda for the next session.
It also won’t be the first time this has happened.
In 2018, Democratic State Rep. Nicole Macri proposed a bill to lift the rent control ban that failed to get out of committee, even with slim Democratic majorities in both chambers.
She decided against pushing it again in 2019, due the large package of tenant rights and eviction reform she and other lawmakers had as priorities.
Now that most of those bills have passed, she says she’ll try again with rent control — at least in some form — though it may look a little different that Sawant and some others on the council envisioned.
“I think in 2020 we’ll be looking at a statewide strategy,” Macri said. “So, rather than just lifting the ban and letting local cities implement a mish-mash of policies, we’ll be working on strategies to implement more renter protections, including protections against egregious rent increases.”
She says there are still Washington renters being hit with drastic rent increases, sometimes of double or more in a matter of months.
As for what any proposed rent regulation bill might look like, Macris says it could end up as a standalone measure, or be combined with her “just cause” eviction bill from last session that failed to pass, after significant pushback from landlord groups.
Rent-restriction policies such as anti-gouging laws combined with just cause eviction rules that limit a landlord’s ability to evict a renter, have both been popular models in places with newly-minted rent control laws, including Oregon.
Macri is not convinced by critics, and some research that suggests rent control policies only exacerbate the shortage of affordable housing by driving up rents and pushing landlords out of the rental business, potentially leading to even less supply.
Macri says it depends on the model used, noting that rent control programs that have had problems in other areas often have similar rules.
“The shortcomings are related to a chipping away of the policy over time,” she said. “In some cities for instance, only units that were built before a certain date are included in the rent control program. [Or] when units turn over between tenants rents are reset at market rate. So you essentially create two separate markets, a rent-controlled market and a non-rent controlled market, which is where you see challenges with market suppression,” Macri continued.
That is why Macri and some fellow lawmakers are taking a hard look at existing policies in places like Oregon, New York, and the Bay Area, along with models outside the country and current proposed versions in other states, before crafting a proposal for the 2020 session.
Whatever that looks like, Macri says it is unlikely to lift the ban and return local control, allowing cities like Seattle to develop their own policies. Still, she understands the desire.
“Because the realities on the ground in Seattle are different than the realities on the ground in smaller cities around the state,” Macri explained.
“Knowing what I know about working on this area of landlord tenant policy … I don’t see a path for returning local control,” she added, pointing to the difficulty of getting the past session’s eviction reform and other renter protection bills through.
Still, there is some support to at least consider the idea of lifting the ban on rent control outside of Seattle, including Spokane, which is also dealing housing and homeless issues, including a very low vacancy rate.
Democratic State Rep. Tim Ormbsy represents that side of the mountains, and told the Spokesman Review that’s why he co-sponsored Macri’s previous rent control bill. He also said would do so again, in an effort to make it at least part of the conversation around housing and homeless issues.