Councilmembers Sawant and Licata on new legislation: No rent hikes for buildings with code violations!



On October 14, 2015, Councilmembers Licata joined me, Attorney Knoll Lowney, Osman Osman and Sahro Farah from the 6511 Rainier Tenant Association, Hana Alici of the Tenants Union of Washington State, and Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) to introduce proposed legislation to ban rent hikes in buildings that are not up to code.

As we all know, there is no law that the City Council can pass that will guarantee that tenants are never victimized or exploited. At the end of the day, only tenants organizing themselves to build their own power can do that. But the City Council can make every legal avenue available for tenants to defend their rights. The legislation we have proposed is a common sense step in that direction, and our struggle to win such basic protections further exposes the urgent need for a Tenants’ Bill of Rights and a robust affordable housing package that includes rent control.

Watch the full press conference here, or view my remarks below.


 

I particularly appreciate Sharon highlighting that this is a housing justice issue, but it’s also a racial justice issue, given the stark statistics. I wanted to mention that Councilmember Licata gave his apologies, because he is going to a meeting with the Mayor. He is going to present this bill to the Mayor, and ask him he if he concurs. And, if the Mayor concurs, I think that will be a big step forward for the council to formally vote on this bill.

I want to briefly comment on what Knoll Lowney mentioned about the press conference upstairs: The city had given Triad Development – which, incidentally, is a mega-developer – an outrageous sweetheart deal. To put this into context, Triad has financial connections with Goodman Real Estate, and was founded by Goodman. If you all recall, Goodman Real Estate is a speculative developer, who, among other things, have displaced, or in other words economically evicted, many elderly tenants from the Lockhaven and Theodora communities.

Triad was getting a block of prime real estate virtually for free. If I had been on council at the time this was voted on, I would definitely have voted NO. The Tenants Union sued this city this past year to try and reverse the deal, when they learned what an abusive real estate company Triad is. Goodman Real Estate has been involved in this, as well, and it’s important to highlight that.

It has been years, and the city is canceling this outrageous gift of public resources for private profit now only because of the activism and attention of housing advocates like the Tenants Union who are here today, Knoll Lowney, the attorney on the case, who is here today, and the former Executive Director of the Tenants Union Jon Grant who exposed to The Seattle Times an outrageous attempt to strong-arm him recently over the lawsuit.

I also wanted to echo an important point that Hannah made, which is that while this law is extremely important to pass, laws such as this one, and all laws protecting tenants, work only to the extent that tenants are able to get organized. Tenants need to be organizing their buildings into chapters of the Tenants Union, so that they can, in an organized, not an individualized way, report housing code violations and potential violations to the Department of Planning and Development. So they can come and inspect, just as they did in the Charles Street Apartments, and record the violations.

Unless those potential violations are recorded, these laws do not kick into effect. The backbone of the enforcement of these laws are the tenants themselves and their ability to organize. And it is our responsibility as elected officials to promote that kind of grassroots organizing. And that’s why we’re here as well.

And lastly I wanted to talk about how significant the recent developments have been for housing justice. We are often told, by the status quo narrow-minded thinking, that nothing will work. That $15 wouldn’t pass. That there is no hope of revoking the ban on rent control.

When the Tenants Union filed a lawsuit against Triad, they were told, “This is pointless.  This is just a waste of the court’s time. You can’t win against the real estate lobby.” But here we are today making so much progress because people are getting organized.

And I urge everyone who is watching this to understand that it was this kind of organizing that allowed us to win the rent control resolution recently, and I have no doubt in my mind that if we continue to build our movement, we will be able to repeal the ban on rent control as well.

And I’m happy to open this for questions. And Knoll Lowney, and myself, and Sharon Lee, are here to respond to questions.

From Q & A

Q:  Do you think that your fellow Councilmembers or the Mayor will get on board with this?

A: Well you saw what happened with the rent control resolution. After spending six weeks on obstructionism, refusing to put the bill on the committee agenda, after only after voting it down and speaking out against rent control, and still saying, “I don’t believe rent control works,” we got an eight to one vote on the rent control resolution.

What that demonstrates is that even corporate politicians who are beholden to big developers, who are bankrolled by them, can be held to account if we have a movement of tenants. But I would say, we can do even better: We don’t want corporate politicians there, we want people who automatically advocate for tenants on City Council.

Q: Will it be easier for them to get behind a resolution than a law that they may argue is illegal?

The way they obstructed the resolution, it was very clear that they did not want to vote on it, but they voted yes because of public pressure.

And also, everybody knows the significance of the resolution.

It’s not just empty rhetoric – the resolution on rent control, the resolution that demands that Olympia repeal the ban, is the city’s official position now. The City of Seattle has officially taken the position that we want the ban revoked, and, if we all remember, Representative Frank Chopp has said many times that we need cities to officially take a position so that it strengthens our ability to fight for this at the state.

Q: Has the City Attorney Pete Holmes weighed in on this bill?

A: The new bill? Yes, the staff at the City Attorney’s office have taken a look at it. They are saying that substantively, it is absolutely okay. They are saying that they will probably make small edits, and we will have an updated version by Friday, which we’ll share with the press at that time.

Q: How big of a problem of this is citywide?

A: My understanding – I don’t have official statistics – but I will tell you that once we published the case of 6511 Rainier Avenue South, our office has been receiving phone calls and emails from tenants that are both Carl Haglund properties and also by other management corporations who have said that they are facing similar conditions where the apartments are in poor or semi-poor conditions, and their rents have gone up. And they range all the way from the South End to Capital Hill. One of my Legislative Aides just yesterday visited a building in Capitol Hill where similar – not exactly the same, but similar – conditions occur, and I was recently speaking to representatives of the Vietnamese community, who said that they have a list of buildings that they want to report to us, which we will be reporting to the press very soon.

Q: Where was the building on Capitol Hill?

A: I can’t remember the exact location, but it’s [near the big Starbucks on Olive Way]. And the building is actually an example of what Knoll was talking about: There are major renovations that are happening there, and tenants are frustrated with having to live in the conditions of where everything’s torn down, and there are wires hanging everywhere. And they’re starting to move out, because they didn’t know what they could do to fight against it. But now they’re interested in forming a chapter of the Tenants Union, because they also feel quite angry that they’re put through these conditions. Clearly, they haven’t got any redressal, they haven’t got any relocation assistance, and they’re subjected to frustrating situations, which they think, “Okay, I’ll just move out.” But really, it’s our job as elected politicians to offer tenants justice – a real alternative.

Q: Is this complaint-based?

A: Unfortunately, because we don’t have the human power in the city’s departments to investigate every single building, it has to be complaint-based. Which is why, when I emphasize the need for tenants to be organized, it’s not rhetoric – it’s absolutely necessary for tenants to be organized. And we will be using these victories that we’re achieving here in order to spread the message that, “Tenants, regardless of what conditions you’re in, you should be organized, because you may need it someday. And Tenants Union of Washington State is here to help you.”

As far as the question of whether or not councilmembers will vote on this, I think it’s very clear that it’s a rational law, we’ve heard legal opinion on that, as well. There is precedent to it. It is closing a clear loophole. So if elected officials want to officially take a position against the basic interests of tenants, they will do so at their own peril.

Q: Are we seeing this primarily in the minority and other communities?

A: First of all, statistically, yes. Minority communities, because of the connections between race and income, and lack of influence on the political process, yes, as Sharon Lee said, overall, nearly half of all people of color are in situations that can be termed exploitative. But we have seen many examples, like the building we were talking about on Capitol Hill, where it’s not just minority communities. As a matter of fact, what we are seeing is an explosion of problems for the entire middle class, not just low income people in Seattle. And the scale of the crisis is so huge now that nobody – unless you’re a very high-salaried person or a millionaire – nobody is immune to it. I’m sure many of you here are facing similar conditions.

Q: Do you have a sense of momentum at this point? Given the [Triad] news conference upstairs, given your success in the passage of the resolution, can you talk about momentum?

A: There is absolutely momentum operating on the issue of affordable housing on the whole, and that encompasses the bigger policies that we need to make housing affordable. It also includes tenants rights in general.

I don’t remember the last time there was such a vibrant discussion on tenants’ rights, where tenants themselves were driving the discussion. And partly this has happened because we have organized town hall after town hall on the housing issue, where hundreds, if not thousands, of tenants have themselves spoken out about the conditions, and echoed in a very big way the need for city wide rent regulation.

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