The Seattle City Council voted unanimously Monday to create the 15-member board, which could begin meeting this summer to talk about pushing laws to help cope with soaring rents and displacement, among other concerns.
The Seattle City Council on Monday voted unanimously to create what is believed to be the nation’s first renters’ commission, which will push laws to help a growing group that makes up 54 percent of all households yet has a weak voice in City Hall.
Rents have skyrocketed about 40 percent across Seattle in the past four years, and some longtime tenants have been priced out. But advocates for renters say they had nowhere near the organized clout of homeowners — who had long dominated city-sanctioned neighborhood groups to push politicians on their agendas — or landlords, who pool money for lobbyists and opposed the renters’ commission.
The 15-member group of renters will meet regularly and pass ideas directly to City Council members who make laws, and to other officials who help shape and enforce them.
“To renters, your life and your voice matters and the City Council affirmed that today,” said Zachary DeWolf, who first proposed the commission idea and is president of the Capitol Hill Community Council.
State laws and local codes govern the relationships between renters and their landlords and set a standard for living conditions. There are many rights afforded to renters under these laws.
Here's a guide to renters' rights in Seattle.
The new commission is mandated to seek out members of long-marginalized communities to sit on the volunteer board, such as immigrants, low-income residents, felons, those who have been homeless and members of the LGBTQ community. The average Seattle renter earns about half of what a homeowner makes and is disproportionately more likely to be a person of color.
The commission itself won’t have any power, but it will provide renters a direct line to City Hall.
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The panel will set its own agenda. Among the hot topics its members are likely to wade into are the pace of apartment construction, laws to protect tenants from being evicted, Airbnb and other rental services, and rent control — which is illegal statewide.
They’ll also be involved in making sure that existing laws to protect tenants are actually enforced. That includes a new regulation to cap move-in fees, and a first-come, first-served application process for tenants over which landlords are suing.
Even with the very topic of renter civic engagement on the agenda at Monday’s council meeting, only a handful of renters showed up.
“We’re busying working to pay off rising rents in this city; we don’t have time to come to City Council meetings,” said Mathew Ellenberger, a University of Washington student who spoke at the meeting. He lamented that when he began renting here two years ago, he had no clear, central resources to figure out basic things like what to pay for a security deposit.
Landlord groups opposed the commission, saying it was unfair to give renters special representation at City Hall when most legislation pits the interest of renters against landlords. Property owners say rising property taxes have all but forced them to raise rents, and they fear further regulations would make their situation even harder.
Sean Martin, a spokesman for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents landlords, says it’s disingenuous to say renters’ voices aren’t being heard when several pro-renter laws have passed in recent years.
“Right now, tenant advocates, anything they throw against the wall, it sticks,” Martin said.
Martin said landlords asked for nonvoting positions on the commission but the city didn’t include that.
Councilman Tim Burgess spearheaded the legislation to create the commission and found co-sponsors in council members Lisa Herbold, Mike O’Brien and Debora Juarez. Mayor Ed Murray will sign the bill, his office said.
Although proponents and local officials know of no other U.S. cities with a similar renters’ commission, the nearby city of Vancouver, B.C. — which is dealing with its own rental crisis — created one in late 2014.
Andrea Reimer, a city councillor in Vancouver, said the biggest challenge has been retaining committee members: About half left the city or didn’t reapply at the midway point in their term, including a commissioner who moved to Toronto after writing Vancouver’s report to the province outlining renter recommendations.
But finding commission members hasn’t been a problem. Reimer said some renters have “waited their whole lives” to be seen as on equal footing as homeowners. She said that at public meetings in Vancouver, owners will sometimes speak down to renters, or even outright say that renters’ opinions aren’t as worthwhile.
“For whatever reason, there are certain owners who feel much more entitled to have a point of view on cities and city proposals,” Reimer said. “Either implicitly or not, it says to renters, ‘You’re not welcome here, or you don’t matter as much as we do.’ ”
The new commission isn’t expected to cost the city of Seattle any money: Its members won’t be paid, and the Department of Neighborhoods staffers helping organize the meetings will absorb the new duties into their existing roles.
Anyone interested in signing up to sit on the board can contact the city in the next couple of months; the council and mayor will appoint most members.