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 to be shared by all, or if that wealth is to be 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 empower the community to control speculation, that promote growth that benefits both newcomers and existing residents, and that ensure enforcement of tenants’ rights.
The housing crisis demands an urgent response, and these proposals represent a fundamental shift by prioritizing people over profits.
Tenant Collective Bargaining Rights
Seattle can lead the nation in fundamentally changing the present imbalance of power between tenants and landlords in determining the cost and quality of their living conditions. The city must adopt standards that permit 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 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 landlords. If tenants withhold rent, they are evicted for non-payment. If a tenant complains about substandard living conditions, their lease is not renewed. When landlords dramatically increase 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 the tenants’ right to collectively bargain with the landlord by taking action to freeze 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 and renewed commitment to morally and legally acceptable housing policy practices.
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 add 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 and increasing 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 2% in some parts of the city. It’s time for us to demand 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 25% of all new housing to be affordable to low income and working class people is the best tool to achieve that goal.
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 landlords. 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.