(L-R: McKenna, Berger, some hipster, Hyde)
The issue of rent control, which city council members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata want to be on the table at the city level, took center stage this week, both in the “Rent Is Out of Control!” town hall meeting on Thursday and in the questions directed by Sawant at the eight finalists to replace departed city council member Sally Clark, who resigned to take a job at the UW.
The town hall, which was an extended celebration of unanimity (my rent is too high, therefore we should put a cap on rents), highlighted the affordable housing crisis (about half of renters in Seattle are “cost-burdened,” meaning their rent is more than 30 percent of their income, and the average rent for a one-bedroom has skyrocketed, to $1,443) but didn’t offer more than the blunt instrument of rent control (or “stabilization,” if you prefer) to solve the problem. (Full disclosure: I, like 52 percent of Seattleites, am a renter. I pay more than a third of my income as rent. And I believe that subsidies and targeted taxation, not rent caps and taxes on new development, are the solution).
Which brings us to former state attorney general Rob McKenna. McKenna, whom I’ve covered off and on since his days on the King County Council, and I don’t agree on a lot of things (the Republican and onetime gubernatorial candidate has a shaky record on social issues, and applies his supply-side brush a bit too indiscriminately). But when we went on KUOW, along with Knute Berger and host David Hyde, to discuss the week’s issues on Friday, McKenna and I did agree on this one: Artificially placing caps on rent (even ones subject to inflation-linked increases) will only protect the lucky few who manage to snag rent-controlled apartments. Everybody else will still be competing for apartments on the “free” market—only this free market will include new disincentives (taxes) for developers to build new apartments, creating a supply crunch just as demand increases.
Couple rent control and development taxes with laws, like neighborhood conservation districts, that encase Seattle’s 20th-Century single-family neighborhoods in amber, and you’re looking at a new class division: A small class of people whose rents are subsidized (mostly because they got here before whatever tech wave came after them), and. everybody else. Look no further than New York or San Francisco (which do, in fact, have rent stabilization like Sawant and Licata are proposing, not straight-up price caps) to see how rent control works in practice. Stabilized apartments stay in families for generations, and the reduced supply of apartments for all other renters in the city gets more and more expensive. When 52 affordable units in the infamous “poor door” building went on the market, 90,000 New Yorkers applied to rent them. Is that what we want our city to look like?