On a sunny Saturday in Seattle, dozens of volunteers with Kshama Sawant’s re-election campaign spread across the city asking: “Do you support rent control?” Many people begin to walk by, then stop, spin on their heel to come back and ask, “did you say rent control?!” In just a few weeks, thousands have signed on to support the campaign.
Countless stories of rent hikes that drive families out of the city, of affordable apartments being torn down to make way for luxury units, and of 1 in 13 Seattle Public School Students experiencing homelessness have begun to coalesce into a fighting energy determined to win real relief for working families.
The Chateau apartments is a rare affordable building in Seattle’s Central District where residents range from a ninety-year-old Chinese couple to a family of five who only just moved in after living out of their car. When the Chateau residents first heard that their building was going to be torn down by Cadence Real Estate, a developer that brags about its ability to make a 27% profit for its investors, tenants got organized. They partnered with Councilmember Sawant’s office to fight back and win major concessions, including $200,000 in relocation assistance. The residents have now joined the broader community fight for rent control.
The excitement around rent control is gaining steam nationwide. In New York City, a showdown between tenants and developers is shaping up over universal rent control, which is aimed at closing the massive corporate loopholes in existing tenant protections. In Colorado, California, and Oregon, statewide bans are being challenged by growing tenants movements. Oregon tenants already won an important breakthrough with a new statewide rent control law, though the landlord lobby won major loopholes.
The Case for Universal Rent Control
There is a growing recognition that the private market isn’t capable of solving the housing crisis. Seattle is on a building spree, with more cranes than any other American city for four years running. But 92% of all new housing is luxury housing that’s out of reach for most residents, while some neighborhoods have 27% vacancy rates!
The market’s failure has fueled fast-rising support for rent control in Seattle, but when our volunteers talk to people in the street it’s also clear that years of developer and landlord propaganda have created confusion. Capitalist economists and politicians continue to allege it leads to less housing being built which in turn drives up housing prices. But in New York and San Francisco, it wasn’t rent control itself but the massive loopholes and exemptions won by developer lobbyists that created a shortage of affordable units.
To address these failures, Kshama Sawant has introduced a universal rent control bill to the Seattle City Council that would be universally applied. It avoids exemptions for new construction and “vacancy decontrol” which allows landlords to raise the rent as high as the landlord wants when a renter moves out, which leads to tenants enduring harassment campaigns from landlords trying to drive them out.
Rent control alone won’t be enough to solve the housing affordability crisis. Councilmember Sawant has also fought to build tens of thousands of new, publicly owned affordable homes, paid for by taxing Amazon and big business. Even if we win these demands, big victories will always be under attack under capitalism, which is we we fight for a fundamentally different society: we fight for socialism, where working people’s needs are prioritized, not corporate profits.
How Do We Win?
While the growing demand for bold answers to the housing crisis has led some politicians to claim they support rent control, their strategy of backroom meetings with corporate stakeholders and developer-funded state officials will never be the path to victory. We need to build a determined movement of working people who are ready to fight. With a statewide ban, and the Washington legislature in the hands of Democrats who refuse to act on rent control because of their ties to the real estate lobby, a movement in Seattle must be the tip of the spear for our fighting statewide strategy.
Escalating action by tenant groups, socialist and community organizations – and crucially the labor movement – will all be needed to build a strong enough movement to win. Already a number of renters rights groups and the Seattle teachers union are backing Sawant’s legislation.
A major victory for rent control in one city could serve as a breakthrough for affordable housing movements around the country. Socialist Alternative member and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who has been the leading voice rent for control in Seattle since she was first elected in 2013, is using her reelection campaign to build support for universal rent control. If passed, her bill would be the strongest in the country.