Seattle City Council Votes Against Historic Rent-Control Proposal

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empty council room viewed from side of council dais, U.S. and Washington State flags and white screen hang behind the empty council seats

It was fun performing my protest song at Seattle’s historic city council vote on rent control on August 1st despite the fact that #TammyMorales was the only other council member to vote yes on Kshama Sawant’s proposed legislation.

Sawant was the only member present at council chambers during the meeting. The members who voted “no” opted to stay home and most of them hid behind a photo or blank Zoom screen. The assembled crowd booed the members who chose not to support Sawant’s measure and many chided them for not being present at city hall.

It certainly looked like the council members were trying to avoid the large crowd of unhappy housing activists assembled in the city council chambers.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda was absent from the council chambers and from the Zoom meeting.

Before the members announced their votes, Tammy Morales stated that cities such as Vienna and Paris have been able to mitigate huge increases in rent by requiring comprehensive rent control. Those cities have also provided affordable social housing for residents.

Council President Debora Juarez made it very obvious that she was tired of hearing public testimony on the issue. She complained that the council had already heard many hours of people’s comments. It was clear that no matter what information was presented during that meeting, she was not going to change her mind on the issue.

Lisa Herbold said she was voting against the measure because of its flaws and claimed that she did not bother to offer any amendments to fix the proposal because the sponsor of the proposed law (Sawant) had stated that she didn’t want the legislation to be “watered down” by endless compromises.

It is quite apparent that most of the current members of the Seattle city council are glad that Kshama Sawant will not be returning next year. Her brand of activist politics has energized the left and is considered a major irritant by Democrats. Her fellow council members do not appreciate the enthusiastic manner in which her supporters pack city hall during important votes or public hearings.

This confrontational political style upsets the sensibilities of Juarez and others who prefer a more restrained “business as usual” kind of approach to city politics. They take the open criticism of their policies personally and sometimes react with emotion instead of tact and discretion.

The coalition that Kshama Sawant and her party, the Socialist Alternative, have formed with labor organizations, housing activists, musicians, homeless advocates, etc. has asserted itself as a powerful and effective force in Seattle politics for the past decade. No one else has been able to achieve these kinds of legislative successes including raising the minimum wage, securing bonuses for essential workers during the pandemic, fighting against a proposed multi-million-dollar police department “bunker”, passing the “Amazon tax”, and pushing for affordable housing initiatives and major budget proposals to increase social services.

Sawant addressed the critical statements made by her fellow council members during remarks after the vote. She told the assembled crowd that her movement is opposed to “the politics of personality” by which political campaigns become focused on the politicians who sponsor them instead of on the constituents whose lives can be improved through effective legislation. She has always spoken directly to her constituents during council meetings, unlike the majority of members, who seem to adopt an attitude of privilege and isolation because of their political office.

Sawant is one of the most effective communicators I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve met many famous political, journalistic, and arts/entertainment personalities. She knows what her constituents are thinking because she listens to them, helps inspire them, and assists activists to organize campaigns to improve the community. She stays in touch with her supporters and sends out constant updates on council business and upcoming votes. No other council member has this kind of efficient and effective communication system.

During the boisterous rally that took place in the council chambers following the vote on rent control, Sawant told her supporters to be proud of their past accomplishments and advised them not to be disheartened by the negative vote. She strongly criticized Democrats on the city council who claim to be “progressive” but vote against rent control and other legislation designed to assist poor and working people in the city.

Sawant pushed back against The Seattle Times, which opposed her proposed rent-control law. In a series of Tweets earlier in the day she made these points:

  • A 2020 WA state poll shows that 71% of the state’s likely voters support rent control.
  • More than 35,000 Seattleites have signed positions supporting strong rent control legislation.
  • The Washington State legislature caved to real estate developers and lobbyists back in the 1980s and passed a ridiculous law prohibiting rent control anywhere in the state. Her rent-control legislation was designed as a “trigger law” to begin the battle to overturn this statewide ban.

I’m sure that huge multi-billion-dollar real-estate corporations are now very happy that the Seattle city council did not approve Sawant’s proposed rent-control law. As a result, rents will continue to skyrocket, homelessness will continue to increase, and working-class families will be forced out of the community by the high cost of housing.

The status quo will now be maintained so that The Seattle Times and Downtown Business Association can be placated. Wealthy and conservative “law-and-order” business interests will continue to rule by influencing the city council and mayor. Unannounced sweeps of homeless encampments will continue to be city policy thanks to Mayor Bruce Harrell and the Chamber of Commerce.

Tolerance for affordable-housing activism will diminish and business as usual will prevail. Poor folks will continue to be steamrolled under the pressure of powerful economic interests.

Residents will have to work three minimum wage jobs just to afford rents in Seattle where inflation is rampant and the regressive 10% sales tax unfairly penalizes the elderly, disabled, & poor, while billionaires pay no income tax at all.

Welcome to the city of Seattle, where only rich people can afford to live!

Meanwhile many luxury condos and apartments go unoccupied as the homeless population increases. Construction workers who build these billion-dollar developments can’t afford to live in the city where they work.

Kshama Sawant, who helped inspire a national movement to increase the minimum wage, is not standing for reëlection this year. Many establishment politicos and business operatives are thrilled that she will not be back to harass them.

I told The Seattle Times, “Yes, I suspect that the #Seattle political establishment would like to go back to a status quo where rents continue to skyrocket, huge corporations are free to reign, and poor & working-class activists are absent from city hall.”

Seattle‘s democratic socialist city council member Kshama Sawant has proven that she is a very resilient elected official. Despite this setback in the rent control campaign, I’m sure she will continue to pursue activist politics.

In fact, Sawant says she will be focusing on labor issues and organizing with the new national Workers Strike Back movement. That campaign is involved in assisting Amazon and Starbucks workers to organize labor unions.

Whatever she chooses to pursue, I’m sure that Kshama Sawant will continue to rock the establishment’s sacred boats and, as a journalist once put it,

“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Featured photo, “Seattle City Council Chambers 01”, by Joe Mabel is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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