On March 30, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a suspension of rent and mortgage payments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The resolution called on Washington Governor Jay Inslee to use emergency powers to immediately enact a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. It also called on the Trump administration and national legislators to impose an immediate nationwide moratorium on rent and mortgage payments, property taxes, and other residential costs.
The City Council’s resolution urges the state government to give relief as working people in Seattle and across the country reel from the impact of COVID-19 and economic recession triggered by the pandemic. Roughly one-third of renters were unable to pay rent in April, and the U.S. is currently experiencing historic unemployment rates.
Washington, like many states, was already suffering from a severe housing affordability crisis even before the economic downturn. A 2017 study found that over 40 percent of Seattleites were rent-burdened, spending over a third of their monthly income on rent.
These conditions spurred the first push to tax Amazon and Seattle’s largest and wealthiest corporations in 2018. Shamefully, after initially passing unanimously, the tax was repealed by a majority of Seattle’s Democratic city council members under pressure from a right-wing repeal campaign funded by big business.
Throughout the 2018 fight to Tax Amazon, our movement was met by a constant onslaught in the corporate media about how even a meager tax on big business would be devastating to the local economy – all this, despite Washington State boasting the most regressive tax system in the country.
When Seattle passed the historic $15 an hour minimum wage back in 2014, we faced similarly dire warnings that higher wages would only hurt workers, as grocery costs would rise and businesses would move jobs out of the city. These predictions have been discredited by recent studies. By contrast, the current health and economic crisis has been exacerbated by previous cuts to necessary services like public hospitals, and by inadequate workplace protections.
What Will It Take to Win?
There is strong support for bold measures to provide relief for struggling renters during this crisis. Thousands have already signed a recent petition launched by socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, calling on Governor Inslee to implement a statewide cancelation of all rent and mortgage payments without back rent or other incurred debts.
Millions have also signed similar petitions nationwide in solidarity with the Rent Strike 2020 movement initiated by socialist congressional candidate Joshua Collins.
However, if issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal have taught us anything, it’s that broad support for a particular policy among the working class is not sufficient to guarantee that it becomes law. Winning a cancelation of rents and mortgages will require ordinary people getting organized in sustained movements to demand that our interests be prioritized over the profits of big banks and mortgage holders.
The housing movement and socialists in Seattle can set a bold example in this direction: the momentum that developed out of Seattle’s 2018 movement to Tax Amazon and the historic 2019 grassroots reelection campaign of socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant has been instrumental in preparing the ground for the struggles ahead.
It was through the joint struggle of housing activists and Kshama Sawant’s office that a historic ban on winter evictions was won earlier this year. Similarly, a letter from councilmember Sawant to Seattle’s mayor helped pressure the swift implementation of a citywide eviction moratorium in response to COVID-19. These examples demonstrate the value of building sustained working-class movements that can build on past victories.
In order to go beyond the immediate demands of the moment and win lasting gains for working people, these movements need broad democratic structures to discuss how to take the struggle forward at each stage, and to discuss and distill the lessons of past victories and defeats. The lessons of Seattle’s Tax Amazon movement also demonstrate the importance of having elected representatives who are accountable to working people, and who can give working-class movements a voice in the political arena. In 2018, seven of eight Democrats voted to repeal the Amazon Tax passed at that time, with only Councilmembers Sawant and Mosqueda opposing the shameful capitulation to big business.
All of this points to the vital need for a new party of working people, where renters, union members, socialists, students, and oppressed communities can join together in struggle around a common program and run candidates independent of corporate money and accountable to the movement.
Socialist Alternative would advocate for such a party to take up a socialist platform, and to fight for a fundamental transformation of society based on human need, not profit.