Kshama Sawant and her Socialist Alternative movement have a laudable plan to expand renters’ rights. Under the banner of “Affordable Seattle: Housing for People not Profit”, Councilmember Sawant takes credit for helping secure passage of laws limiting move-in costs, barring rent increases until code violations are fixed, and extending anti-discrimination protections so all tenants regardless of race, gender or sexual preference have equal access to rental housing.
Still, that credit must be shared with Councilmember Lisa Herbold whose work on behalf of tenants predates Sawant’s by more than 20 years. And let’s not forget that such laws could not have been passed without the Tenants Union’s role in advancing tenant rights for 40 years in Seattle.
That said, Sawant and her movement are drawing hundreds to forums and hearings around the rallying cry of “rent control now.” Not since the days of former Councilmember Judy Nicastro (circa 2000) have tenant issues had such visibility at City Hall.
Earlier Sawant and SA led successful fights for the $15 minimum wage and against Seattle Housing Authority’s plan to dramatically raise rents on public housing residents. There's very little in what she and her movement are seeking that we don’t agree with.
However, there’s a gaping hole in their platform. Sawant and SA have avoided challenging the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). While calling for an increase in the mandatory housing requirement — the number of units developers must set aside as ‘affordable’--she’s nevertheless praised HALA’s city-wide upzones even though areas slated for the greatest increased density also contain the city’s highest number of minorities and low-income people. Raising the developers’ mandated housing requirement won’t offset the massive loss of low cost units and displacement caused by the upzones.
Neither Sawant or Socialist Alternative have taken leadership in the recent upzone of the UDistrict that will have a devastating impact on 1,500 existing low-cost units there. She voted right on Councilmembers Herbold’s and O’Brien’s amendments to modestly soften the blow, but never attended council meetings or public hearings on the matter. Earlier when neighborhood groups sought amendments to zoning in low density multi-family areas — changes that would have prevented loss of hundreds of low cost rentals — Sawant purposely did not show up for committee discussions.
To our knowledge, Sawant and the Socialist Alternative have never decried runaway growth and its impact on our existing unsubsidized affordable housing stock. And only recently has she voiced support for developer impact fees, trailing behind Councilmembers LIsa Herbold, Mike O’Brien and even Sally Bagshaw’s leadership on this. Sawant has never called on developers to replace one-for-one the low cost units they remove or other anti-displacement measures to protect low-income and minority tenants now losing their homes in record numbers to redevelopment. Nor has she called for a pause in massive growth until such measures are put in place.
Addressing growth and its impacts is prerequisite to truly responding to rent increases, displacement and homelessness. Demolitions reduce supply of existing low-cost units, driving rents up on what's left. Upzones greatly accelerate that and cause speculation on these existing properties, also driving rents up and low-income tenants out.
To the extent that Sawant’s new renter effort sidesteps these critical structural issues that get at the heart of inequality in Seattle, and thus diverts attention from necessarily addressing them, then arguably she and her movement are making the problem worse. Until Sawant and her movement put these matters front and center, the inconsistencies in their "radical socialist' agenda will remain.
Apparently, Sawant made a tactical decision not to tick off the well-heeled corporate-backed urbanists or the zealously pro-density Stranger and its readership, for fear of undercutting her reelection chances in her third district. Doing so makes her look more like a typical Seattle politician than her actively cultivated persona as a principled advocate for racial and economic justice.
We’re tiring of her avoidance of these fundamental "redistributive issues" — matters that those of us so often accused of being 'NIMBYS' care about, as do thousands of progressives she seeks to represent. Ironically, Sawant is catering to development interests she rhetorically disavows. It's hypocritical and hurts most low-income and working people and especially communities of color.
Sawant is two years out from re-election. It may be that she assumes many of us in the neighborhoods will follow along and back her regardless. Or maybe she thinks our votes don't matter in her district.
That would be a mistake. Last election, what got her a victory was a lot of money from a record number of small donors. Many were tenants but many also were progressive homeowners. And she likely never would have been elected in the first place without the strong backing from neighborhood activists who had tired of Richard Conlin's pro-developer biases. But she's betraying both groups by avoiding taking on the pro-HALA, pro-density, pro-displacement machine. If and when her base picks up on this, she’s not only going lose her luster but quite possibly the next election.
JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a low-income housing organization. More information can be found at www.zipcon.net.