Housing is a human right. We must enact housing policies that uphold this basic principle. As Seattle grows so does its wealth, and we are at a crossroads in deciding if that prosperity is shared by all, or if that wealth is transferred to the hands of the few. At the heart of this conflict is the truth that everyone, everywhere, has the right to a home free from displacement or discrimination. To make housing affordable Seattle must adopt new policies that empowers the community to control speculation, promotes growth that benefits both newcomers and existing residents, and builds power for tenants in their buildings.
The housing crisis demands an urgent response, and these proposals represent a fundamental shift in prioritizing people over profits.
Tenant Collective Bargaining Rights
Seattle can lead the nation in fundamentally changing the imbalanced power relationship between tenants and landlords in determining the cost and quality of their living conditions. The city must adopt standards for tenants to collectively bargain over long term rental contracts with their building owners. This would enable tenants to bargain with owners to improve building conditions and allow tenants to negotiate for reasonable rents.
The ability to bargain over wages and benefits has long been established in the relationship between workers and their employers. The city must extend these principles to housing. When workers are paid unfair wages and offered inadequate benefits they can form a union and go on strike to improve working conditions. Currently tenants have no fundamental right to bargain with building owners. If tenants withhold rent, they are evicted for non-payment. If a tenant complains about substandard living conditions, their lease is not renewed. When building owners jack up rents tenants are economically evicted with no recourse.
The city has for a long time believed its hands are tied by the state ban on rent control to address rent hikes. The city must change its attitude and push back against economic eviction by any means necessary, and establish new protections for renters beyond rent control until the ban is overturned. Because the city is prohibited from regulating rent directly, this proposal would enable landlords and tenants to negotiate directly over rental contracts for rents, rules, and living conditions. The city would enforce their right to collectively bargain with the landlord by freezing all permits, licenses, and rental registrations where the landlord has any ownership stake until they meet and negotiate in good faith with the tenants.
Generations of Seattleites are pushed out of the city by rising rents, and new generations are locked out by rising costs. This calls for a fundamental re-thinking of what are morally and legally acceptable practices in our housing policy.
25% Affordability Mandate on All New Development
Across the country the cities with the worst housing affordability crises have already imposed a 25% affordability requirement on all new development. Seattle must do this too. Given the tremendous job growth in our city we must require developers to share the cost of mitigating the demand on our affordable housing stock.
People aren’t moving to Seattle because we are building more buildings. They are moving to Seattle because of our tremendous job growth. By 2035, Seattle expects to grow by 120,000 residents and 115,000 jobs. Many of these new jobs are for high earners in the tech sector, so developers are motivated to only build luxury housing. But we know that for Seattle to be a vibrant and diverse city we must have housing affordable to everyone. Given the incredible demand for housing, the city has a tremendous bargaining position with private developers. The city has so far asked for very little; currently our affordability requirements are as low as 3% in some parts of the city. It’s time for us to ask for more.
If existing communities are going to thrive in a hot rental market, the question is how can the city recapture new value from growth and redirect it toward more affordable housing. Requiring as much as 25% of all new housing to be affordable to low income and working class people is the best tool to achieve that goal. To be clear: I would not support any inclusionary zoning proposal that would deter or prohibit development. I would require the city to conduct an independent economic analysis for any proposed upzone of a neighborhood to determine if the developer can meet or exceed the 25% affordability mandate, and in any event, require the highest affordability standard supported by that economic analysis.
Office of the Tenant Advocate
The city must establish an independent department with a dedicated funding source that offers tenants free legal representation in their disputes with their landlord. The city currently enforces its building codes and tenant protections through the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspection. The office is understaffed and underfunded, and lacks sufficient enforcement authority. A new Office of the Tenant Advocate with a clear mission to represent the interests of tenants and with a dedicated funding source would ensure tenants’ rights are consistently enforced. Many landlords view tenant protections as “advisory law”, and are even brazen enough to testify in Council chambers that they can ignore the tenant laws the city does pass. This attitude and practice of ignoring the law must be put to an end through proactive and consistent enforcement.