Tenants of Seattle slumlords are standing up and fighting back. For years they’ve been forced to live with rats, roaches, black mold, and broken appliances. Any time they requested repairs and maintenance of the units, the landlord refused or illegally forced them to pay the bill. But, when they were presented with 120% rent increases the tenants refused to give up and leave. They got organized with the Tenants Union of Washington, called Socialist Alternative Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, fought back, and won.
Economic boom and recovery for whom?
Seattle is experiencing an economic boom. Construction cranes are now a common feature, visible from anywhere in the city. Yet for many workers, college students, and retired residents, the city is becoming increasingly unaffordable, as big developers are building luxury units that are completely unaffordable for nearly half of Seattle’s workers. The so-called recovery is not reaching Seattle’s working class.
The construction boom has landlords and property owners looking to cash in on increased property values by price gouging their current tenants. Unable to pay, many longtime residents have been economically evicted from the city entirely. Others are moving to the outskirts of the city in search of housing within Seattle. The tenants of the Charles Apartments would have been the next victims of economic eviction, but they chose to fight back.
“This is gentrification”
“Sahro’s kids have the same dreams of those who are working in Amazon and Microsoft. Their financial status should not determine their future. This is gentrification in action,” said Somali community organizer Abdi Mohamed.
After the property was purchased by the notorious slumlord Carl Haglund, rents on units left unrepaired for decades were increased from about $500 a month to $1100. One of the tenants, Somali immigrant, single mother of 5 children, and 10-year Seattle resident Sahro Farah, appealed to the landlord but was told, “you are low people, not needed, go out. Rich people, Amazon and Microsoft workers, are moving here.”
Representative of the people or the slumlords?
Farah also made numerous attempts to enlist the aid of her district city councilmember, Bruce Harrell, but never heard back. Farah and others then contacted the office of Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who quickly responded, visited the house and was shocked about the conditions Haglund tried to exploit. Mold, cockroaches, children on permanent allergy medication – no one should be forced to live under such conditions. Kshama organized a press conference along with the Tenants Union.
It was this press conference, and the subsequent extensive TV and print news coverage, that galvanized the community behind the tenants of Charles Apartments and forced city officials to act. The Seattle Department of Planning and Development, tasked with monitoring building code violations and tenant complaints, visited the apartment complex the next day and cited the landlord for numerous housing code violations, including units without working heat.
At first the slumlord Haglund, through his developer lobbyist spokesperson, tried to explain away the rent increases as necessary to repair the building. But, the pressure from tenants and the bright media spotlight was unrelenting. Carl Haglund was forced to back down from implementing the rent increases, pledged to bring the building up to code, and offered 1-month free rent for tenants that wanted to leave.
Step up the fight
“We need rent control! No more roaches, rats, or mold! No justice, no peace, no rent increase!”
About 100 people gathered on a rainy morning, the day after Haglund announced he was backing down, to step up the protests on one of Seattle’s most notorious slumlords.
“It is a protest of the deplorable conditions that many tenants of slumlords are living in, but it’s also a celebration because tenants got organized and fought back and forced a notorious slumlord like Carl Haglund to back down from rent increases,” said Kshama Sawant.
Outraged by the pictures and video showing rat holes, extensive black mold, and out-of-control roach infestations, the community wasn’t going to stop with just promises of relief. The crowd demanded relief for all his tenants and declared that Seattle should be a #SlumlordFreeZone.
To step up the pressure and use the momentum, Kshama asked the community to join her for a protest the following Wednesday, 8am, at another building owned by Carl Haglund. The socialist city councilmember and an excited crowd are demanding similar changes at all of Haglund’s buildings, that rent hikes are excluded as long as housing code violations prevail, and that rents have to be reduced while tenants suffer under health damaging living conditions. This is also an urgent task for the City Council to act on.
Lessons from the slumlord fight
Had the tenants left, there would have just been another story of economic eviction, buried amidst all the headlines screaming about an economic recovery that for too many of us isn’t real. Instead, what we have is a victory for the Charles Apartment tenants and for all renters across the city living in substandard housing and facing unaffordable rents. This swift victory shows what’s possible when we get organized and fight back.
Seattle is currently debating rent control to stop economic evictions. But, this story also highlights another important reason we need rent control. It’s currently illegal for the city council to pass legislation barring rent increases on buildings with housing code violations. Winning rent control is necessary to stop price gouging, generally, and it’s a vital tool to wipe out slumlords completely.
This victory is also an illustration of how the balance of power can shift in favor of working people when we have our own working-class representatives in city hall. Kshama Sawant used her access to the media, her platform, and the resources of her office to help these tenants get organized and fight back. Imagine what would be possible if we had more representatives like Kshama Sawant in office all across the country.
This is precisely what Carl Haglund and other slumlords in Seattle are trying to stop. Haglund has donated the maximum amount to Kshama’s opponent and 3 other conservative city council candidates running for election this year. They are his dream team. He knows they are more likely to listen to serve his interests than Kshama, who refuses money from slumlords, corporations, and developers and pledges to stand up to them.
To win fundamental changes to our housing policies and get relief for all working people, we need our movement out in the streets and in the halls of power. Let’s start by doing all we can to re-elect Kshama Sawant and building the movement for rent control.