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Seattle's Rent Control Debate Rages Behind The Scenes During Bernie Sanders Campaign Stops

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Message Mark Taylor-Canfield
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(Originally published Capitol Hill Times August 5, 2015 "Seattle's Rent Control Debate")

The latest victim of the wrecking ball on Capitol Hill is a beautiful old house at 12th and John where artists have lived and worked for the last 11 years. Blessed by support from a friendly artistic property owner, painters, costume designers and poets had been creating a lot of art at that location, flying under the radar, so to speak, with little attention from the community.

For the last few months, former residents and their supporters have been organizing Capitol Hill artwalk shows every second Thursday as a way to let the neighborhood know they exist. A poet covered the proposed land use notice sign with a clever and sympathetic poem about population displacement, demolition of buildings and the eviction of residents. Unfortunately, their valiant efforts to highlight the displacement of artists in Seattle has not saved the building, which is scheduled to be torn down this month in order to make way for another new real estate development.

Such is the plight of many residents of Capitol Hill and many neighborhoods in the rest of the city. Some tenants are now faced with up to 300 percent increases in their rents and owners are selling to real estate developers whose favorite past time seems to be destroying historic buildings.

During the recent debate on rent control July 20 at Town Hall, city council members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant faced off with development lobbyist Roger Valdez and state legislative representative Matt Manweller. The real news story surrounding the event was the fact that the hall was filled to capacity with folks who are suffering from a state of shock due to the massive overdevelopment of many neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill.

Gentrification and the loss of affordable housing have been major issues during the current city council elections, and although I am sad to report that Nick Licata is retiring from the council after decades of noble public service, Kshama Sawant has made rent control her main platform issue during her district 3 re-election campaign. Sawant's previous campaign promise to increase the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour was successful and now the movement has spread across the country to major cities like Los Angeles and New York.

Since rent control is prohibited by the Washington Legislature, it's unclear as to how successful this rent control movement will be in Seattle. Clearly, the issue is in the hands of state legislators, but Sawant, Licata and local affordable housing activists have been calling upon local elected city representatives to lobby our state lawmakers to overturn the ban. The large audience at Seattle's Town Hall event on this issue proves that the residents of the city are getting fed up with overdevelopment and high rents.

The Town Hall debate was often interrupted by shouts and cat calls from the audience as Manweller and Valdez tried to convince folks that rent control is a bad idea. The moderator was former president of the Seattle City Council Peter Steinbrueck. He urged the crowd to cease their interjections as he fought to maintain a civil dialogue. Three quarters of those in attendance were obviously in favor of rent control, while a stubborn minority of the attendees applauded the anti-rent control agenda.

According to Valdez and Manweller, rent control is a failed public policy that violates the principle of free enterprise. Arguing a libertarian point of view, their contention is that government should not interfere with real estate deals and the market should decide how high rents should be. Manweller maintains that people renting 200- square-foot micro-units for $1,000 a month are simply expressing their freedom of choice as consumers.

Let's face it -- offering incentives to developers to maintain affordable housing units has not preserved the culture of the city, even though these issues have been discussed since Licata was first elected on a tenants advocate platform many years ago. Does anyone remember the election of city council member Judy Nicastro? She also ran on a rent control platform but was unsuccessful in pushing that agenda once she was elected to office. Nicastro even brought current Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to town to discuss housing as a human right.

Sanders will be visiting Seattle again this weekend (See Page ?) as a campaign stop, but nothing has really changed since his last visit. We still don't have rent control, and the previous outcry against over development has only been amplified by this latest real estate boom/bubble. There is an obvious clash of values on this issue. Tenants want protection from skyrocketing rents while developers feel it is their right to make as much money as quickly as possible with little or no government interference.

It's too soon to predict whether Sawant's campaign for rent control will be as successful as her drive for increasing the minimum wage. She is facing major opposition from the local real estate industry and powerful out-of-state interests. Her self-identification as a Socialist seems less of an issue than her willingness to take on the big money folks who control that industry and oppose any forms of rent control.

Perhaps it is actually less of a political issue and more of an economic struggle. Regardless of the political affiliations of any candidates for city council, Seattle is experiencing the fastest increasing rents in the country and this concern over the loss of affordable housing will not go away after the elections.

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Independent journalist, musician and activist.
Contributing Writer - Huffington Post, Truth-out.org, Guest columnist Capitol Hill Times
Blogs at Daily Kos
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