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My Remarks at the May 5th Press Conference for Rent Control without Loopholes & Strong Tenant Protections

Good morning. 

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that housing is a human right. But we certainly don’t need a piece of paper to tell us that – billions of working people in the world know that we need a society where all human beings have all their needs met, and can live with dignity on a sustainable planet.

And yet in cities across the United States and in other wealthy countries, a housing affordability and homelessness crisis has been raging. Thousands of our Seattle neighbors are homeless. Tens of thousands of neighbors are on the precipice of economic ruin. Many are so deep in debt after the last year that they have no realistic hope of ever getting their heads above water. Not unless they get organized and fight, that is.

Working people have lost housing. They’ve lost savings. They’ve lost security. They’ve had to move, to find new housing, to double up with others. They’ve had to scramble and give up basic amenities just to keep a roof over their heads. Small businesses have also taken a severe brunt from this pandemic and the economic devastation of the last year.

Meanwhile, billionaires and multimillionaires have enriched themselves during the COVID pandemic. Corporate landlords have raked in millions.

This is a shameful indictment of the corporate landlord industry, and indeed of the entire capitalist system. It produces unimaginable wealth for a few by exploiting the majority of renters.

Dramatic steps are needed to fight the growing crisis of economic displacement and gentrification, which is being fueled entirely by profiteering corporate landlords, the big banks that underwrite real estate deals, and big corporations.

That’s why I’m proud today to stand alongside our renters’ rights movement to announce major new legislation that demands housing as a human right, and our strategy to win them. 

My office is introducing legislation to enact residential rent control in Seattle. The bill says that rent control – without any corporate loopholes – will go into effect the moment the shameful state ban on rent control is lifted.

With this rent control legislation we are challenging every City Councilmember – as well as candidates running for office this year – to declare whether they stand with the big corporate landlords and their failed housing policies, or with working people and housing as a human right. And not just saying they support this – which is of course the first step – but whether they will actively join our movement to win gains for Seattle’s renters. We especially question the Democratic Party establishment that controls this city’s politics: will you stop dragging your feet and finally pass this legislation? 

My office is also introducing legislation to enact – immediately – commercial rent control in Seattle, to help struggling small businesses that are confronting the same displacement and gentrification pressures that working class renters face. There is no state ban on commercial rent control, so there are no excuses for the City Council to delay on this measure. I have asked the City Council’s technical staff to develop this legislation, and they will be doing that over the next couple of months.

As we build a powerful movement to win rent control, both for renters and struggling small businesses, my Council office also will be advancing other important legislation to limit rent increases, by requiring landlords to provide longer notice before imposing any increase, and by requiring them to provide relocation assistance when they push tenants out due to higher rents.

We’re holding this press conference today at 23rd and Union for a very important reason. Here we are, in the heart of Seattle’s historically Black Central District. In many ways this is ground zero in the fight between profit-seeking corporate landlords, on the one hand, and working class renters, homeowners, and struggling small businesses, on the other.

Right behind me here is an apartment building owned and run for profit. At The Central, the corporate landlord charges from $1,593 to $2,485 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. 

Across the street over there is East Union, another apartment complex. It’s owned by the same corporate landlord. They have apartments listed there right now for between $1,543 and $2,146 a month.

Just a block east of here, on the other side of Union, is the Liberty Bank Building, a new affordable housing project. Built for people, not for profit. It was built by Africatown Community Land Trust and Community Roots Housing, using public funds.

The same sized one-bedroom apartment at the Liberty Bank Building rents for $1,180 a month. More than $350 to $1,300 less per month. Over the course of the year, that’s thousands of dollars less than the rents charged by profit-seeking landlords.

What’s the difference? These buildings are in the same block. The apartments are the same size. The only difference is that two of these buildings are run for the profit of company owners, while the third is run to benefit people.

Now I’m sure some people in the political establishment will say: Why now? Didn’t rents just go down last year?

It’s true that rents dropped temporarily in 2020 due to the pandemic and the capitalist recession, which of course fell hardest on low- and moderate-income households. 

But here’s the rest of the story: Since January, Seattle landlords have raised rents by an astounding 9 percent, according to an industry study. Nine percent increase. In just the last four months. 

As the study’s authors enthusiastically announce in this report to their corporate landlord clients, “the days of plummeting rents in pricey coastal markets are officially behind us.”

This is an absolutely stunning admission by the captains of the real estate industry. After dropping rents in the last year due to COVID and the capitalist recession, corporate landlords see a glimmer of economic improvement and are wasting no time – zero time – to exploit Seattle tenants. 

That is shameful.

We would not have this with rent control.

We need to fight for a city that puts people before profits.

Now, before we hear from community members, let me say a few things about the legislation. 

Some 41 years ago this week, Democrats and Republicans in the Washington State Legislature shamefully caved to the corporate landlord lobby and passed a bill outlawing cities from enacting rent control. 

We think this law is illegal and needs to be challenged. With our rent control legislation, we are first going to challenge Seattle’s political establishment to declare which side they are on – the side of profiteering corporate landlords, or struggling renters. And then, we are going to challenge the state political establishment to declare which side they are on. 

As you know, Democrats control the state government. The governor is a Democrat. Democrats control the Senate, 29 to 20. Democrats control the House, 57 to 41. They do not need to compromise with anyone to pass legislation overturning the ban. They can do it themselves. 

And so state Democrats have the same choice: will they stand with profiteering corporate landlords, or struggling renters? 

We know that to overturn the current state ban on residential rent control, we have to build a powerful grassroots movement. Step 1 in building momentum is to force the Seattle City Council to pass this legislation – which is perfectly legal – to have strong rent control without loopholes go into effect the moment the state ban is lifted.

As we move these measures forward, we also will be advancing other legislation that will make it more difficult for big landlords to increase rents:

  • A bill to limit rent increases by requiring landlords provide 6 months’ advance notice for any rent increase;
  • A bill to force big landlords to pay tenants when they are economically pushed out.

Currently Seattle landlords have to provide only 60 days notice for rent increases of more than 10 percent. They don’t have to provide any advance notice for small rent increases. 

Other Northwest cities – such as Auburn, WA and Portland, OR – actually have stronger laws on the books.

Our movement’s proposal will require landlords to provide 180 days’ notice – 6 months – before any rent increase. The City Council can enact this measure immediately, and provide relief and comfort right now to renters who are worried about what will happen when their leases come due in the next year.

Also, Portland, OR requires landlords to pay tenants when they are forced to move due to rent increases.

We want to win the same protections here. And again, the City Council can enact this now.

Also, look at the back side of the leaflet.

~~~~~

It will be extremely difficult to win any of these renters rights bills. And yet the moment is urgent, with tens of thousands of Seattle households struggling for economic survival.

Just 12 months ago, as our movement was advancing our Amazon Tax, Mayor Durkan declared, “Yeah, that never is going to happen, and I think it’s irresponsible for anyone to say that that’s even possible.”

Well, we organized, we fought back, and we proved the mayor wrong. We won the Amazon Tax. That’s the kind of grassroots momentum we need to build again. Which is why our movement is launching our rent control petition, demanding that the City Council pass our rent control legislation, without corporate loopholes. Our movement plans to collect 20,000 signatures from people across the city. Note the petition includes our other demands.

And join us at the renters’ rights rally Thursday May 27th at 6PM in Pratt Park!

Even before COVID, things were bad for working class renters. Before COVID:

The economic displacement of working class households has fallen hardest on Black communities and other communities of color, as evidenced by the fact that Seattle’s historically Black Central District, which used to be more than 70 percent African American, is today less than 20 percent Black. This includes both renters, and homeowners.

Seattle is in fact the third most gentrifying city in the country.

This gentrification and displacement due to rising rents further magnifies and reinforces historic racial inequities.

The political establishment claims to be committed to undoing these historic racial inequities. But they have failed to act. 
So rent control is a matter of economic justice, and it’s also a matter of racial justice.

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