Perverse Sentimentalism Part 3: How We Might Get Rent Control

You’ll hear a lot of people hand wave the notion that Seattle will get rent control anytime soon. Even the legislative proponent, Representative Nicole Macri, says she thinks it will be a struggle. But here’s how it might play out. My job is to worry about the worst case scenario. Here’s the worst scenario I can think of. The timeline is rough but you’ll get the point. I think this is unlikely but possible, especially some kind of “compromise” which allows pay outs to tenants, something that could be rationalized as generating more money for “affordable housing.”

January 2018 

The legislative session opens in Olympia and Representative Macri’s bill eliminating the State preemption on rent control is drafted and slated for a hearing. When asked at a press conference whether he supports the legislation, Governor Jay Inslee says, “I think that giving this to local governments as a tool to help address rising prices is important.” When quizzed on her views, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan echoes the Governor: “During my campaign I said that rent stabilization could be a useful tool to address affordable housing.”

For his part, Speaker Frank Chopp a seat mate of Macri and whose 43rd legislative district overlaps City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s 3rd council district says, “We ought to give the bill a hearing and let the house vote on this issue.”

February 2018 

In a series of hearings on rent control in legislative committee, raucous protestors shut down meetings of committees listening to testimony on rent control. Senator Rebecca Saldana comments, “While protestors should be respectful of the process, their emotion reflects how bad this crisis is.” Saldana says she’ll champion a companion bill in the State Senate.

Meanwhile, hearing proceed with Republican’s outvoted on several amendments that would redirect the repeal of preemption. The session is a short one, and not many bills get passed, but the rent control legislation passes out of committee on party lines.  Speaker Chopp in private meetings acknowledges that there is lots of evidence showing that rent control doesn’t work, but he says he will put the bill before a vote of the house and let his caucus members vote their conscience.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, partisan wrangling leads to a compromise to give the rent control bill a hearing with no commitments to pass it or put it on the floor. The hearings are boisterous but the bill passes with minor amendments out of committee.

March 2018

Wrangling over education funding and other issues overshadows the debate on rent control, but Senator Saldana continues to push the issue, and her bill becomes part of a larger compromised on the capital budget. It’s agreed that the bill will get a debate and vote on the floor. Most opponents are confident it won’t pass. They check their votes. One key player is Senator Guy Palumbo who has said he is a no vote. But the rent control forces lay siege to Palumbo’s office and a few other more conservative Senators.

The Seattle Times runs a front page story featuring the stories of a dozen people displaced in Palumbo’s district and other suburban areas. The calls are pushing the more conservative Senators. Finally, Palumbo gives in. “I can’t fight this,” he says, “people in my district are calling in about this 3 to 1 in favor.” Besides, he says, it doesn’t enact rent control, only local governments could to that.

One of the last bills to pass both houses of the legislature is a phased in repeal of rent control that starts in larger cities, specifically Seattle. The bill is more complicated and not an outright repeal, but the way is cleared for Seattle to impose a limited form of rent control that is no longer inconsistent with State law. The legislation would allow pay outs to tenants and other limits on rent increases not previously allowed.

The Governor signs the legislation which takes effect almost immediately. “This is a great step forward to help local governments help communities suffering from displacement and housing cost burdens,” Governor Inslee says as he signs legislation.

July 2018 

The Seattle City Council begins the process of considering a slate of rent control proposals they call, “Tenant Rights and Protection Program.” As usual, the Council Chambers are flooded with red shirted proponents of the measure. Debate includes various comments and efforts to slow the measure. There is some debate about whether Councilmember O’Brien, who supports the measure, should vote since he is a land lord. Other Councilmembers express concerns and doubt.

August 2018 

With some amendments the Tenant Rights and Protection Program passes exposing rental units in the city to enhanced inspections, a fee, and strict limits on rental increases. The Council passes a Rental Property Increase Schedule that mandates specific limits to rental increase without penalty. Increases in excess of the limits are allowed but only with a fee or a penalty payable the tenant, or in some cases, to an affordable housing fund. One local industry insider says off the record to the Seattle Times, “Based on the buy out here, we’ll have to plan for increases and simply buy out the tenants.”

Non-profit housing agencies pushed hard for the changes. “The fees generated from this measure will both help many tenants, but the ones paid into the fund will help us build more affordable housing,” said Paul Lambros, Mayor Durkan’s new director of the the Office of Housing. Thanks to his intervention with non-profit housing agencies, most fees end up in the fund. The money collected for the fines and fees paid by landlords and apartment buildings to allow increases in rent will be collected then granted out. When asked how long before the money would be available Lambros said, “It will take a few years for us to get a sense of how much we’ll collect and be able to distribute.”

Most middle and large rental companies, especially corporately and nationally owned buildings say that they will just factor the buy out provision in future rent increases, meaning that paying the fees and fines will be folded into overall rent increases. “What is happening here is that lots of money will be paid out when rents have to go up, but the rents will still go up, and they’ll go up more to offset the fees,” says an national representative for a large corporate building owner. “We’re going to sell our three single-family homes we rent up in Licton Springs,” said a smaller operator. “We can make a pretty good return on these since there is a hot market in single-family homes,” she said. “It’s just not worth it to rent them out anymore.”

September 2018 

Supporters are jubilant. The Stranger puts Macri, Saldana, and Sawant on the cover of their first September edition. It’s a cover in the style of socialist realism depicting the three in relief in front various figures dressed as workers and students and transit riders. The bold headline reads, “The Three That Saved Seattle Renters!”

The image above is by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, “The death of the Political Commissar” (1928)

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