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Seattle wants to give renters a louder voice at City Hall

New legislation would add renter perspective

An apartment building with outside entrances to the units and colorful doors—red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Jesse Noone/Flickr

Nearly half of Seattle residents are renters. More than half of the city’s housing units are rentals. The number of renters has trended steadily upward since 2009 and will likely make Seattle a renter-majority city in the not distant future. And yet renter advocates and some members of the Seattle City Council say homeowners are dominating the conversation at City Hall.

It’s an issue the council may soon remedy by creating a Renters’ Commission.

The Renters’ Commission would be made of 15 volunteers—all renters, of course—who live throughout the city. They would weigh in on issues such as parks, transportation, tenants’ rights, land use, the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, and public safety.

Last week, Seattle City Councilmembers Tim Burgess, Lisa Herbold, and Mike O’Brien introduced a bill to create the commission.

“We noticed that when we do our typical outreach around policies, the folks that show up to town hall meetings or give other sort of feedback are disproportionately homeowners,” explains O’Brien. “It’s great that we’re hearing a lot from homeowners and their input on policy will come from their reality, but we may be missing [the perspective of] over half the city.”

Commissions like this are nothing new for Seattle. The city has dozens of volunteer commissions and boards focusing on everything from urban forestry to immigrants and refugees to arts. O’Brien says the groups typically come to the council and mayor with an agenda they want to see enacted. They also serve to answer specific questions elected officials may have about the impact policy could have.

Capitol Hill Community Council President Zachary DeWolf is one of the organizers pushing for a renters’ commission. He says homeowners too often cast renters in a negative light.

“One of the things I noticed when I joined the Capitol Hill Community Council is the way in which homeowners were characterizing renters. Frankly it was confusing because I was a renter, I was involved, I was a nerd for the stuff happening in my neighborhood. It was concerning hearing, ‘you’re transient, you don’t care about the neighborhood, there’s no way you’re invested,’” he explains.

He sees the renters’ commission as a chance to create a formal channel for renters’ concerns.

“It’s about having an elevated voice. Especially since those voices tend to be young people, queer people, students, people of color, low to moderate income people. We know those people are underrepresented,” DeWolf says.

At a council committee meeting Friday, Burgess Legislative Aide Sera Day said 53 percent of white residents in Seattle own homes versus 29 percent of African American residents and 27 percent Latino residents. “This is an issue that exists at the intersection of race and class,” she said.

Public testimony about the bill at Friday’s committee meeting was overwhelmingly in support of renters’ commission. One landlord testified against the bill.

“I oppose the renters’ commission as written. You’re creating a special group, giving them special privileges, giving them special access to the council and that is unconstitutional,” said M.C. Halvorson on Friday. She claimed that the commission would violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protections clause.

O’Brien says he is quite certain the commission does not violate the Constitution. Besides, he points out that landlords are well represented by two lobbying groups, the Seattle Rental Housing Association and the Washington Multifamily Housing Association.

“Those groups meet with all of us at city hall on a regular basis to make sure we know what landlords’ thoughts are on policy,” O’Brien says. “There is nothing quite like that on the renters’ side.”

Given that the commission will be comprised of renters, DeWolf says the group will likely weigh in on tenants’ rights and housing law. But he expects them to also go far beyond to look at things such as parks, transit, zoning, sidewalks, and other things that impact renters just as much as homeowners.

“What it really comes down to is beginning to establish that renters are valuable members of the city,” DeWolf says. “In Capitol Hill we [account for] 80 percent of folks. It’s important to get organized and get into positions of being part of solutions because for so long we’ve been left out of that.”

The council’s Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods & Finance Committee will vote on the renters’ commission bill on March 15. The full council will likely take the final vote on the bill on March 20. If it passes, the city hopes to have the commission up and running this summer.