Advocates hold red signs backing rent control and housing the homeless.
People rallied for rent control and housing for homeless during a 2019 rally at Seattle City Hall. (Credit: Seattle City Council)

Earlier this month, a 47-group-strong coalition urged Mayor Jenny Durkan to extend Seattle’s eviction moratorium through the end of the year. That pressure has borne fruit. On Monday, Mayor Durkan announced a three-month extension. Governor Jay Inslee’s decision is still pending [Update: On March 18th, Governor Inslee extended the statewide moratorium and rent freeze through June.]

Advocates aren’t stopping there, seeking not just the nine-month extension they sought, but also a host of other tenant-friendly policies, including statewide rent control and a rapid build out of social housing and tiny homes. [The Urbanist is one of the 47 groups to sign the letter and join the effort.]

Coalition organizations led by the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America (Seattle DSA) are hosting a tenant rights townhall at 6:30pm tonight with elected leaders. Senator Jamie Pederson and Representatives Frank Chopp and Nicole Macri of the 43rd Legislative District, and Senator Joe Nguyen and Representative Joe Fitzgibbon of the 34th.

Democratic Socialist housing platform

“Beyond the immediate emergency legislation on the table today, Seattle DSA’s Housing Justice Policy Committee is calling on our elected officials at every level to enact the following policies,” the invite states.

  1. No Economic Evictions Until Affordable Housing is Available to All
  2. Rapidly Build Enough Affordable Social Housing to Fully Meet Our Needs
  3. Immediate Shelter For all — Build 5,000 tiny Homes in Seattle This Year
  4. Pass Statewide Rent Control and Lift the Rent Control Ban on Local Governments

Much of Seattle’s delegation in Olympia has been supportive of repealing the state’s rent control ban — Rep. Macri authored the bill to do just that. One exception is Senator Pedersen, who has been an outspoken critic of rent control policies. Perhaps the town hall will reveal if he has evolved on that issue at all.

The interesting thing about the rent control debate is that the state’s eviction measures effectively gave us a trial run at rent control. Governor Jay Inslee froze rents in Washington State starting with his stay-at-home order extension in April. It’s been a calendar year and the sky hasn’t fallen. To be fair, it’s not a full-blown test since most of the price pressure in the Seattle rental market has been downward with the dip in demand the pandemic (and the flexibility of work-from-home measures) has caused.

State legislators are also weighing some bills that could aid in social housing production. Seattle will need to get ambitious to fully meet its need and could embark on a 100,000 homes social housing campaign like Paris did. That would be needed to dream of reaching social housing levels seen in other leading progressive cities. At best, Seattle has 8.6% social housing; a 100,000-home campaign could bring that share closer to 20%.

AlterLaa in Vienna composes a neighborhood of social housing towers atop a shopping mall. (photo by Margherita Spiluttini, Architekturzentrum Wien)

The Washington Can’t Wait campaign to revise the Growth Management Act could also aid in changing zoning and land use policies to promote social housing and sustainability. The extreme prevalence of single-family zoning makes it hard to site social housing projects and drives up land costs, leading Alfred Twu to propose legalizing Missing Large Housing.

A "Missing Large Housing" graphic shows a range of midrise and highrise housing options between six-story "five over one" and pencil skyscrapers, including social housing and shared ownership options like baugruppe. "The middle class lives here in industrialized societies," a label notes.
Missing large housing is an important piece of the puzzle where housing demand is high. (Graphic by Alfred Twu)

Rent relief

In her announcement, Mayor Durkan stressed $23 million in new rental assistance aimed at helping tenants get caught up paying off back rent. While the housing debt among low-income tenants is many times larger than $23 million, the assistance program could ease the burden for some. The Mayor also extended utility breaks: “Other COVID-19 relief measures include continuation of Utility Discount Program’s Self Certification Pilot Program is extended until June 30, 2021, which can lower Seattle City Light bills by 60 percent and Seattle Public Utility bills by 50 percent.”

In earlier legislation, the Seattle City Council passed a six-month extension of the moratorium for tenants who can demonstrate financial hardship. That could buy them some time when the moratorium order finally expires. The Council was mostly united around the eviction protection measures, save for Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who tried to water down the package and introduce loopholes, but ultimately voted for it.

Council President M. Lorena González, who is running for mayor, quickly heralded the extension and highlighted the great need.

“For months, our constituents have expressed fear about what an end to the eviction moratorium would mean for their housing stability,” González said in a statement. “An extension of the eviction moratorium means eviction is one less thing that families need to worry about as the city works to implement additional rental assistance to provide people with relief.

Council President González also joined the call for greater rent relief.

“We know that thousands of Seattle residents are still out of work and may continue to struggle to catch up on rent,” she said. “As our economy begins to improve and businesses return to normal operations, people will need time to catch up and this extended, eviction moratorium is key to our recovery efforts.”

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.