As forecast, Seattle, here comes the socialism.
I don’t mean the fake boogeyman socialism that Republicans cry wolf about every time somebody proposes raising taxes to pay for a government program.
This is more of the real deal. It’s the type that Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant very openly advocated for in her successful campaigns — and which voters increasingly seem enthusiastic for, at least in big cities and on the West Coast.
In the 2019 city elections, socialists of different varieties did well in Seattle but also in cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago. So now we’re seeing some of the first truly socialist policy proposals pop up.
Example: In Portland, a planning commission has proposed requiring that space be set aside in new private buildings downtown so that the homeless have a place to rest, which could include places to pitch bedrolls or tents.
It’s a reaction to Portland’s homelessness crisis, and that city’s inability, as here, to make much headway on it. But the proposal “would stretch what’s asked of developers and owners of new private buildings, such as stores and apartment complexes,” the Willamette Week newspaper reported.
That’s an understatement. It would be government mandating that private building owners make room for street camping inside their grounds and structures — something the government has struggled to manage well on its property for years.
Similarly, here in Seattle, Sawant this week proposed a ban on tenant evictions citywide during the colder months. Her draft legislation is modeled after the French “trêve hivernale,” or “winter truce,” in which private landlords are barred from most evictions between Nov. 1 and March 31.
The purpose is humanitarian, that nobody should have to sleep outside.
“There’s no city or state in the U.S. where such a law exists,” Sawant said Monday at a City Council meeting. “So if we do end up passing this it will be another first. Seattle would be leading the way.”
But as critics jumped to point out, somebody has to pay the rent.
“Are we headed to the end of private property rentals?” wondered Roger Valdez, a lobbyist for small developers.
Well the “winter truce” hasn’t ended private rentals in France, and that country has had some form of the winter eviction ban since the 1950s. It’s also true though that France has a “Housing Solidarity Fund” to help compensate building owners when tenants can’t pay. Sawant’s legislation has no such provision.
But Valdez is right that Sawant’s ordinance tips full-on into socialism. It’s the real kind, too, not the modified “democratic socialism” of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, in which he would probably propose taxing the broader populace to help those who are struggling to pay the too-high rent.
Sawant’s proposal, and the one in Portland, are instead both forms of commandeering private property to try to solve a community problem.
I’m not sure if they would work. I suspect the Portland one would not, and so will never happen, while Sawant’s maybe could work if it were modified à la France. But the idea is new enough here that there’s been no study of it. (As a disclosure, my wife works in affordable housing in Seattle, though it isn’t clear yet how any specific rental company might be affected.)
What’s interesting is what all this says about where we are in politics right now. At least since Bernie barnstormed onto the scene, we’ve been debating whether “socialism” in the American context just means New Deal, big-program liberalism. Or is it something more?
Sawant to her credit has been blunt that she’s no New Deal liberal. Her party, Socialist Alternative, calls for worker takeover of the largest 500 businesses. On housing, Socialist Alternative says that “housing policy and urban development should be organized according to a democratic plan and based on public ownership, to ensure affordable, stable, quality housing as a basic right for all.” That doesn’t quite say “end private property rentals,” but it’s at least a few steps down that path.
Seattle likes voting socialist, but how much do we mean it? This is going to be the local political story of 2020, at least until the presidential election sucks up all the oxygen.