Photo: amslerPIX/Flickr

When Capitol Hill Community Council’s Zachary DeWolf first presented the idea of creating a 15-member commission to represent tenants’ rights and weigh in on issues of development and affordability at the Capitol Hill Housing community forum last spring, local politicians and activists jumped on board.

After hammering out the details at the EcoDistrict’s Renter Summit over the summer, the idea has now evolved into an official Seattle Renters’ Commission ordinance and was introduced at the City Council’s Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods and Finance Committee meeting last week to a supportive reception.

“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.

The need for renters’ representation is evident to many. Seattle renters are facing more obstacles than ever. Zillow recently reported that rents in Greater Seattle grew nearly eight percent in the last year, the most of any metro area in the country. Rents have climbed about 40 percent in the last four years, and the average rent now tops $2,000 a month in downtown and South Lake Union, and is over $1,800 in Capitol Hill, Ballard and Fremont.

“Rising rents are pushing residents out of the city, and that’s unacceptable. Low-income renters are nearly twice as likely as homeowners to be displaced by gentrification. I believe that the Seattle Renters’ Commission will bring much needed perspective to our policy work about how we can grow equitably and inclusively,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien in a press release.

About 54 percent of Seattle’s residents rent and differ demographically from homeowners who are more likely to be older, white, wealthier and less reliant on public transit, reports The Seattle Times. If approved, the Seattle Renters’ Commission will give renters from marginalized communities an amplified voice at the table. The legislation aims to include renters of color, renters with felony records, low income, and the LGBTQ community, among others who are getting pushed out by the housing crisis on the commission.

As Capitol Hill Housing’s Joe Sisolak and DeWolf argued in a Seattle Times op-ed calling for the formation of a Seattle renters’ commission late last year, “The commission would represent the voices of renters who don’t have the schedules, babysitters or salaries to show up to middle-of-the-day meetings and comment periods. It would ensure that the representation of renter voices isn’t dependent on who is currently on City Council. And it would help ensure that renters’ rights, like recently expanded protections that ban discrimination in rental housing based on a prospective renter’s source of income or place of employment are enforced and revised, as needed. It could even be responsible for fostering civic engagement of renters by registering them to vote, for example.”

But not everyone agrees. “We just don’t see the need for one,” Sean Martin, a spokesman for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, told 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.

The next committee discussion is set for Wednesday, March 15. If approved, the ordinance would go to the full city council on Monday, March 20. Once cleared, the application and appointment process would take place April-June, with the first Seattle Renters’ Commission meeting taking place in July.

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