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Sawant: This is the time to push for rent control

caption: Kshama Sawant at her city council office
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Kshama Sawant at her city council office
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Rent control could become a campaign issue in Seattle this election.

Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant wants to limit rent increases to the rate of inflation, despite a statewide ban on rent control. The state ban would have to be lifted before landlords actually had to cap any rents.

A lot of people in Seattle pay more rent than they can afford and they’re not happy about it.

“I feel like every time my rent is due and I get paid, that whole paycheck just goes straight to rent," said Mike Wazoski, who rents in Lake City. "I don’t really get to do anything else with it."

Tonardo May, who rents on Capitol Hill, wouldn't mind seeing rents capped in some way. "Because you’re renting and renting and renting, and you can’t save enough to buy a house or own a house or do anything else.”

Rent control has been banned in Washington since 1981. Landlords have opposed rent control because they say it discourages them from making improvements to buildings. Developers have also opposed rent control because they say it robs them of their incentive to invest in new housing. These arguments have helped reduce the popularity of rent control as an idea over the years.

Even though Seattle passed a resolution in 2015 asking Washington state lawmakers to lift the ban, rent control didn’t come up during the current legislative session in Olympia.

But lately, cities and states like California, Oregon and Colorado have been giving serious consideration to the idea, according to Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant.

"The conversation on rent control is popping up everywhere since last year," she said. Sawant doesn't want rent control's political momentum to skip over Washington state.

Sawant says Washington's ban creates a convenient excuse for leaders to ignore the idea.

“You go to city council members, they say, 'Oh, there’s a statewide ban,'" said Sawant. "And then the state ban doesn’t get lifted because [state lawmakers] say, ‘Oh, I support rent control, but I don’t hear enough from cities.’ So let’s take this excuse away from them.”

Sawant wants to pass a rent control law at the city level, despite the fact that it would remain dormant until the state overturned its ban. Asked if this is merely a political move to energize her base in an election year, Sawant said: "Of course it's political."

Sawant added that she hopes her rent control proposal will offer a test to help voters distinguish politicians who support rent control from those opposed or unwilling to commit.

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