Seattle residents protest
David Ryder/Reuters

A new commission would advise officials on issues affecting renters and seek ways to enact stronger protections.

With housing costs rising sharply in Seattle, the city’s large share of renters could soon get a stronger voice in city government.

Three city council members want to establish a formal renters’ commission to advise city hall on the issues affecting renters and strategies for renter protections in the future. The panel would consist of 15 volunteer members, appointed by the council and the mayor. They would represent the full diversity of Seattle renters, including students, low-income residents, those living in subsidized housing, and people with past felony convictions. If approved, it would be the first of its kind for a U.S. city.

“As rents continue to rise, it’s increasingly urgent that renters are given a forum to engage city government with a strong and organized voice,” councilman Tim Burgess said in a press release.

Between June 2015 and June 2016, monthly rents in Seattle soared at a rate four times the national average, forcing out many low-income renters. There have since been some signs of relief within the city, but regional rents continue to rise. About half of Seattle’s households rent, and the group of renters differs demographically from homeowners, who are more likely to be older, white, wealthier, and less reliant on public transit. Burgess, along with council members Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien, says a formal commission will ensure that renters’ interests are represented in policymaking, even if the schedules of individual renters don’t allow them to come to the midday city council meetings.

Rent control is illegal in the state of Washington, so all tenants are liable to continue facing steep rents increases. Low-income renters are especially vulnerable to displacement as the city gentrifies.

In a Seattle Times op-ed, housing advocates Zachary DeWolf and Joel Sisolak wrote, “It’s time for the city to take renters seriously. It’s time to retool the city’s resident-engagement efforts to be more fair and inclusive. It’s time for Seattle to have a ‘renters’ commission.” DeWolf, president of the Capitol Hill Community Council, approached the city council with the suggestion that led to the proposal of the renters’ commission.

But not everyone sees the same urgency. “We just don’t see the need for one,” Sean Martin, a spokesman for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, tells CityLab. “I think the argument that’s been made about renters not being represented in the city is not really borne out by the facts when you look at the number of renters’ protections that have been passed in the last couple years, upwards of eight or nine pieces of legislation.” Seattle has introduced a number of policies aimed at protecting renters and combatting discrimination in the past few years, including a first-come, first-served law and a cap on move-in fees.

Martin says he wants to see more engagement from landlords in the community. “We’re down there engaging with council members, we have good relationships, but if landlords want to see any policy changes or things that don’t impact the industry negatively, as we believe a lot of these [new policies] have done, they need to be more involved for sure. Advocacy is one of the things we do at RHA. If they’re gonna have a renters’ commission, our folks are asking ‘where’s the landlords’ commission?’”

Commissions have a long history of influence in Seattle politics. Separate commissions exist to advise the council and recommend policy on civil service, arts, design, music, and urban forestry, and to represent the interests of immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ residents, women, youth, and people with disabilities. The city council will discuss doing the same for renters in a public meeting Friday morning.

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