After decades of a deepening housing crisis, it’s news to no one that across the country, rent payments place a major burden on working and poor people. Renters are in a highly precarious position—a 2020 study from the U.S Government Accountability Office revealed that a $100 increase in median rent is associated with a nine percent increase in the estimated homelessness rate. In Seattle, now a majority-renter city, rents rose nearly 92 percent between 2010 and 2020, a devastating crisis that has pushed thousands of working families into housing instability or homelessness, and has left 46 percent of renters rent-burdened, shelling out more than a third of their income each month to keep a roof over their heads.
Renters in Seattle are fed up and are ready to fight back against the greed of landlords and the betrayal of corporate politicians. These unsustainable, exploitative conditions brought around 150 renters from across Seattle out to a public hearing on Wednesday, July 12 to fight for rent control legislation brought forward by the office of socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. More than 100 working people spoke in support of rent control during the hearing!
The rent control legislation from Sawant’s office would establish strong, universal rent control with none of the corporate loopholes that have rendered rent control policies much more ineffective in other cities and states. It will apply to every rental home regardless of size, type, or date of building, and rent increases will be limited to no more than the annual rate of inflation. Renters at the public hearing demanded the rent control from Sawant’s office not be watered down with carve-outs by Democrats on the Seattle City Council. Our movement demands no vacancy decontrol, one-to-one replacement of controlled units, and the creation of a Rent Control Board, composed almost entirely of renters to serve as the decision-making body when exceptions to rent control guidelines are requested, all of which is currently included in the legislation.
Winning strong rent control in Seattle would bring enormous pressure to bear on Washington State Legislators to overturn the shameful rent control ban that has been in place for nearly half a century, longer than the young working people who urgently need affordable housing have been alive! The ban was signed into law in 1981 in retaliation against a movement for rent control at the time, with Republican and Democratic State Legislators showing their bipartisan loyalty to corporate interests over the wellbeing and stability of workers. This unjust ban has been left in place by Democrats with majorities in Washington State government over the last three decades This year too, the Democratic majority refused to bring two bills that would have lifted the ban for even a committee discussion, let alone a vote. The bill proposed by Councilmember Sawant would act as a trigger law, going into effect immediately after the ban is overturned. Most importantly, the pressure that renters, working people, and socialists can put on City Council Democrats to pass this bill would help generate political momentum to then put a spotlight on the State Democrats and their betrayals thus far. Renters reiterated that they do not accept City and State Democrats giving one another cover for their combined inaction. As many said at the hearing, “This is your party.”
Working people understand that we are taking up this fight not because it is easy, but because it is vital. At the public meeting, speakers described their personal struggles to make ends meet, as well as their fears for vulnerable members of their communities. Residents of Nickelsville, a community of self-governing tiny homes that keep some of Seattle’s most economically marginalized residents from becoming homeless, spoke on the impossible conditions faced by workers. City funding for these tiny house villages has been fought for and won by homeless activists alongside Sawant’s office and our People’s Budget campaigns year after year. Elisha Burton, a Nickelsville resident, shared the galling statistic that “Seattleites making minimum wage need to work 88 hours per week before they reach the median monthly income rent.” Other speakers described paying rents that stretched their finances just to be forced to live in overcrowded houses, apartments with rat infestations, and with appliances that are never fixed, all as rent payments pad the profit margins of landlords instead of providing funds for needed maintenance.
The very workers who keep Seattle running are being priced out of the city as rents continue their meteoric rise. John Watson, a rank and file member of WFSE and a worker at the University of Washington, described the shameful way workers are being pushed out of the city: “The majority of my coworkers in the custodial department cannot afford to live in the city of Seattle although they are an essential and necessary part of maintaining one of the city’s most important and valuable institutions.” This trend was again called out by Logan Swan, a union ironworker and longshoreman, when he described how his fellow construction workers, the “actual housing providers,” have to commute hours “to build a city that we ourselves can’t afford to live in.” The luxury units Swan and his fellow workers build often sit empty, serving corporations as useless real estate investments in a downtown that has a twenty-five percent vacancy rate instead of providing affordable housing to those who sorely need it. Working class families are especially impacted by the absurd state of rents in Seattle as they shoulder the additional costs necessary to raising happy, healthy children. Kailyn Nicholson, an organizer with Workers Strike Back and a working mom of two, spoke on the impact of unrestrained rent increases on working families: “Economic displacement prevents us from developing the safe, stable communities that our kids deserve to grow up in. They shouldn’t be the ones paying the price so these massive corporate landlords can squeeze an extra million dollars in profit every year.”
It isn’t magic or “market forces” behind the never-ending rent increases, it’s bottomless corporate greed that governs capitalism. Several lawsuits and a recent report by ProPublica allege that many of the largest property management companies in the U.S. participate in illegal “price-fixing” through their contracts with software developed by a corporation called RealPage designed to push rents sky-high. In Seattle, analysis by Sawant’s office found that more than 35,000 rental units are owned by organizations who use RealPage’s algorithm to set rents as high as possible. In part due to aggressive anti-renter tactics like using RealPage’s software, the biggest corporate landlords in the U.S. have been making astronomical profits—a report by Accountable.US found that the six largest property management companies in the U.S. made $4.3 billion in profits in 2022, which is over $1.3 billion more than in 2021.
Jonathan Rosenblum, a member of the National Writers Union and Workers Strike Back and the author of a recent article about this alleged “cartel” of wealthy corporate landlords setting rental prices, spoke at the public hearing to lay out the reality of the role of City Council Democrats: “The question for Democrats is not whether Seattle should or should not have rent control. It’s what system of rent setting they support: rent control to benefit working people as we’re demanding, or rent controlled by the billionaire landlords who, according to multiple class action lawsuits, have been engaging in price fixing to jack up rents.”
Winning rent control in Seattle and beyond is possible and working people have the power to do it. Joe Sugrue, a rank and file member of the Northshore Education Association and organizer with Workers Strike Back, summed up why it’s so crucial for unionized workers to join the fight for rent control: “The fight for rent control is also absolutely a union issue and the labor movement has a key role to play. A main task that we have as organized workers in a union is to defend and extend our rights in the workplace, and also fight for higher wages. That is true, but what good are higher wages if the cost of rent continues to go up and up with no end in sight?”
Our task as members of the labor movement is to build the momentum on the ground that will force the repeal of the rent control ban. Through an organized and energized mass movement, alongside Sawant’s socialist Council office, working people have fought for and won renters rights victories against the same corporations and politicians who want to see rent control crushed. These wins include:
- The right to an attorney for any tenant facing eviction
- School year and winter eviction moratoriums
- Caps on exorbitant move-in fees
- The Amazon Tax to fund affordable housing and homelessness services
- Increasing the notice of rent increases from 60 days to 180 days
- The requirement that landlords pay relocation assistance worth three-months’ rent if they try to economically evict tenants by raising rents more than 10%
- The Carl Haglund Law, named after a Seattle slumlord, which dictates that rent cannot be increased on buildings that are found to have existing housing code violations
- Most recently, we won a $10 cap on the late fees landlords can charge for overdue rent, and an end to exploitative “junk fees”
Washington renters: Join the fight for rent control at the Renters’ Rights committee vote on our rent control bill this Friday, July 21 at 9:30am at Seattle’s City Hall!