Between June 2015 and June 2016, rents in Seattle ballooned 9.7%–four times faster than the national average. With its influx of tech workers, Seattle has climbed the unaffordability ladder–which is constantly yanked higher by San Francisco–and renters, which make up around half of all Seattle residents, are suffering. In response, a group of Seattle City Councilmembers has introduced a proposal to establish a Renters Commission, which would give non-homeowners a voice in local government and a way to collectively influence policy.
If the proposal passes–which seems likely, after it was unanimously approved in a City Council vote on March 15–Seattle will become the first city in the U.S. to have such a commission.
“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,” said Tim Burgess, one of the councilmembers behind the proposal, in a press release. “Half of households in Seattle are renters, with renters making up more than 80 percent of residents in certain neighborhoods, and that number is only climbing.”
The Renters Commission would comprise 15 volunteers, and would oversee subjects like re-zoning, transportation, and housing affordability. The commission’s members will be representative of all Seattle residents, both geographically and demographically, including “students, low-income renters, LGBTQ renters, people with past felony convictions, and people in subsidized housing.,” according to the press release.
Rent control is illegal in Washington State, so there’s no way to stop rents from continuing to rise and drive out more and more people. Gentrification hurts renters much more than homeowners, too, which puts half of all Seattle residents in potential trouble.
The hope is that the Renters Commission would establish a permanent space for renters in the conversation around housing, from which they’re often excluded. Commissioners’ duties would range from advising the mayor and the city council, monitoring the enforcement and success (or failure) of any legislation, and giving general advice on housing policy.
To some extent, the Renters Commission will replace Seattle’s neighborhood district-council system, which mayor Ed Murray abandoned last summer. “District council officers and attendees,” wrote Zachary DeWolf and Joel Sisolak in the Seattle Times, “tended to be 40 years or older, white, with the vast majority owning their homes, as opposed to renting.” This meant that any policies meant to improve the city for renters were met with resistance from homeowners, while the renters themselves had no voice. “For example,” wrote DeWolf and Sisolak, “when the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee released its recommendation to increase urban villages across the city, it was met with loud opposition for intruding on the rights of homeowners.”
The Renters Commission will fix this, and will fit neatly into Seattle’s system of volunteer-run commissions, which cover everything from the arts, youth interests, LGBTQ issues, and refugees.
Homeowners are often seen as more legitimate than renters, but even if that were true, the needs of half the population still have to be addressed. And as the proportion of renters rises across the country, those needs will become the needs of the majority. Seattle might be the first city to establish a renters commission, but it shouldn’t be the last.