The Stranger: Jonathan Grant of the Tenants Union Will Challenge Tim Burgess or Sally Clark for Council Seat

Jonathan Grant, director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, will run against either Tim Burgess or Sally Clark (both bankrolled by developers) for a city council seat.

With these words, developers all over the city will take out their checkbooks: Jonathan Grant is running for the Seattle City Council.

This is big. Grant is the executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State and he’s been behind some notable moves to try to make Seattle less of a nightmare for vulnerable renters. He supports rent control and caps on move-in fees, and he wants the city to buy up affordable housing before developers can turn it into luxury condos.

Who's he taking on? To be determined. Grant plans to run for one of the two citywide seats in the new district elections system, but says he hasn’t decided which one and wants to hear from "leaders in the community" before making his decision. Either way, he'll be taking on a significant challenge. The incumbents running for the citywide spots are Sally Clark and Tim Burgess, both whom have been supported by developers in past elections.

In his role as Tenants Union director, Grant has advocated for laws requiring landlords to register and have regular inspections of their buildings, and for preventing them from discriminating against potential renters solely because of their criminal backgrounds.

"We need to have bold, strong, progressive leadership in the at-large positions if we're going to actually move the dial on these things," Grant says. "It doesn't need to be the case that the community needs to lobby the city council four or five times harder than the industry does. It should be the other way around."

This year, he and the Tenants Union are working on a court case arguing the City of Seattle gave special privileges to Triad—the development company that plans to build on that giant hole across Fourth Avenue from City Hall—by renewing Triad's expired permit. As Ansel explained the argument in January: “Renters get forced out of their apartments with no recourse, while developers get endless extensions on permits to construct new buildings.”

Grant, now in campaign mode, puts the focus on the council. “When you go back and look at just the last four or five years on the city council," he says, "we’ve seen this kind ofwholesale deference to developers.”

The new district system—which puts all nine council seats up for grabs this year—is “a referendum on the way city politics have been done for the last decade” and a chance “to actually turn this ship around," he says.

The 32-year-old owns a house in the Brighton neighborhood in South Seattle, and he came to the Tenants Union in 2010 from a background in social justice and housing advocacy. Today, he also serves on the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee. There, when news recently surfaced that the group had taken four months to write a two-sentence problem statement, he was one of the only members willing to get this honest: “There is a real lack of urgency within the committee and from the mayor’s office to address the housing crisis,” Grant told the Seattle Times.

He called for "bold policy proposals" that will "help low-income people live in this city," but now he's taking it a step further. He wants to be the one introducing those policies.

Among them:

Rent control (also called "rent stabilization"): While state law limits how much the city can control rental prices, Grant says the council hasn’t come out strongly enough in favor of changing state law. Even if it starts with a nonbinding resolution, Grant thinks the city should go on the record in support of changing the state law. "It shouldn’t be seen as some sort of left-wing crazy conspiracy," he says. "There are hundreds of cities across the country that have rent stabilization policies."

Principal reduction: Clark has been exploring this option—which reduces the size of home loans for homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth and are facing foreclosure. But Grant says she’s not doing it fast enough and the council hasn’t fought to budget for it.

"This prolonged, protracted process is actually a function of the industry influencing the legislative process," Grant says. "It’s not to get the policy right. We know what the policy is. We know what the right thing is to do. [Developers] want to slow it down as much as possible and as long as they have an ear of ... the two at-large council members, it will continue to be these half measures and delays, when what we need is action."

Limiting move-in costs: Grant wants caps on the fees and deposits landlords can charge tenants when they move in. Specifically, he thinks deposits should only be equivalent to one month’s rent and a tenant should be able to pay that over two months.

Using the city's bonding authority to buy buildings that are already affordable housing: Grant says the city should create a pot of money so that when developers want to buy buildings that are home to affordable housing (either subsidized or unsubsidized) and hike the rents or turn them into expensive condos—which is happening all the time—the city can buy them instead. (Management would be done by nonprofits or "quasi-public" groups like Capitol Hill Housing.) "It needs to be named that it’s speculation in the market that is driving rents sky-high," he says. "It’s not just a lack of supply."

Public financing of local elections: Remember when Council Member Mike O’Brien tried to get this on the ballot last year and Burgess blocked it? “It is no coincidence that he did that knowing that he was going to be running at large to maintain his seat in the coming year,” Grant says. “That was what motivated this… He used his procedural power to block a basic reform to help keep money out of politics and that, I think, speaks to his values that are out of sync with the city of Seattle.”

Reform in the Seattle Police Department: Grant is up front about wanting to get rid of the discipline review board (the group of cops that considers discipline of other cops) and create more civilian oversight of the Office of Police Accountability (which investigates officer misconduct). He also says the council should be more vocally pushing for those two reforms. But those are changes that have to be negotiated between the mayor and the Seattle Police Officers Guild, meaning the council’s ability to actually get something done is limited.

He criticizes Burgess and Clark for supporting anti-panhandling legislation in 2010; voting against a proposal to allow more tent encampments in 2013; and supporting zoning changes that require developers to set aside certain portions of new projects as affordable housing, but at a lower percentage than some housing advocates had called for.

"To pass policy, you do need to have stakeholders in the room, you do need to talk to the industry, but at the end of the day you need to have results and you need to be responsive to the urgency that exists in the community," Grant says. "That's the test the council—in particular Council Members Clark and Burgess—have consistently failed."

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