Jul 17, 2023 - Politics

Why Seattle can't enact local rent control

Illustration of a key floating in a glass dome.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

A Seattle City Council committee is considering a proposal to adopt citywide rent control. But the measure to cap rent increases, even if approved by the full council, can't take effect without the consent of state officials.

Why it matters: Average rent prices in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area increased 91.8% between 2010 and 2020, according to a city analysis of census data.

  • Local inflation over that period was less — about 21%, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Driving the news: The proposal from Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant seeks to limit annual rent increases to the rate of inflation.

  • It's expected to come up for a vote Friday in the council's Sustainability and Renters' Rights Committee, which Sawant chairs.

Yes, but: Washington state has a law in place that bans cities and towns from regulating how much landlords can charge for rent.

  • Sawant's proposal, if adopted, is written so it would take effect only if the statewide ban is lifted.

State of play: The legislation marks the first time a policy to actually enact rent control in Seattle is up for a vote before the city council members, according to council staff.

  • In 2015, the council passed a resolution supporting efforts in the Legislature to end the statewide ban. But council members didn't approve a trigger law like what they're considering now.

What they're saying: At a public hearing last week, Sawant called Washington's prohibition on city-level rent control "one of the most unjust bans there ever was."

  • "Not only is it legal for your landlord to double your rent, but state law makes it illegal to pass a local law preventing it," Sawant said.
  • She criticized Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's office, for not voting on measures to repeal the statewide ban.

The other side: Groups such as the Washington REALTORS and the Association of Washington Business have opposed past legislation to lift the local rent control ban, saying it would be counterproductive.

  • They said experience in other cities suggests rent control would reduce housing supply by discouraging construction of rental housing, and by making it less attractive for building owners to put units on the rental market.

Between the lines: State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle), who has sponsored proposals to lift the ban, told Axios that many of her colleagues have told her they would prefer a statewide policy limiting rent increases, as opposed to allowing local rent control laws.

What's next: Should Sawant's committee approve her rent control proposal, it could come up for a vote before the nine-member City Council on Aug. 1.


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