Renters crash a landlords’ party in Seattle
reports on a demonstration by renters from across Washington who gathered to send a message to a landlords' conference held in Seattle.
AS LANDLORDS gathered at a trade show in Seattle on December 5 to learn how to increase their gouging of tenants, renters rallied to let them know they would fight back.
Members of the Rental Housing Association and Washington Landlord Association met for their annual TRENDS Rental Housing Management Conference and Trade Show, attending workshops like "Eviction Law" and "Does Section 8 Make Sense Today?" and "Proven Strategies for Enforcement of Tenant Duties."
In response, the Washington Community Action Network (CAN) mobilized nearly 100 renters and supporters to protest their blatant attack on tenants' rights. Other sponsors included unions such as the Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, AFSMCE and United Food and Commercial Workers union, and groups like the Transit Riders Union, Gender Justice League, Housing for All and Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action.
In addition to the rally outside, several renters managed to get inside the conference to serve the landlords with an "Eviction Notice" to "Support Tenant Rights of Vacate Politics" that read in part:
You are hereby notified that your practices of lobbying against tenant protections, supporting politicians who are harmful to tenants and using lawsuits to block the implementation of landlord-tenant law reform must end.
THE ATTACK on tenants is part of the general housing and homelessness crisis in Washington state and around the country.
As a CAN press release noted, there are 11,000 homeless people in King County, which includes Seattle. Due to housing cost increases, the amount of money that a Seattle family of four needs for rent has increased by 86 percent since 2001.
In spite of the phased increase in the Seattle minimum wage to $15 per hour passed in 2014, wages haven't kept up with rent increases. This means that nearly half of Seattle's renters pay at least 30 percent of their income in rent, which is supposed to be the maximum sustainable level.
Outside Seattle, the lower state minimum wage applies, so conditions are even worse. Gentrification, displacement of low-income renters and the general lack of affordable housing give landlords the upper hand.
Speaker after speaker at the December 5 rally attacked slumlords who refuse to bring apartments up to minimal health and safety standards. "It was raining inside my house, but the landlord said it was too expensive to fix the leak," said a speaker named Tina.
Maria asked, "Would you want to live in a house where you were scared you would burn alive due to bad wiring?"
"My sink was flooding and my lock didn't work," a protester named Ty said. "There was no light outside my door. It took a long time to get the landlord to fix these problems. But if my rent was even a day late, he charged a late fee right away."
Protesting renters noted other problems as well. Landlords discriminate against Section 8--the federal rental regulation that provides for support for low-income people--sometimes saying, "We don't rent to people like you."
Activists also explained how gentrification leads to continual displacement. "I have been forced to move more than four times, from neighborhood to neighborhood," Esther noted. "Developers want to tear down the building I live in now."
The result is that many people are being driven out of the city. As Tyisha said, "I was born in Seattle and can no longer afford to live in the city I was born in. I can't keep up with the rising rents. Landlords scheme to get as much rent from tenants as possible. I'm a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers. We get good contracts, but even these can't keep up with rising rents."
THOUGH HOUSING prices have risen the most in Seattle, the surrounding area is feeling the same pressure and the same response by landlords. In fact, the problem of rising rents and homelessness is statewide.
Seattle has passed some laws that mitigate the effects of the crisis inside the city limits. For example, landlords are forbidden to raise rents when their units are not up to code, there must be "just cause" for eviction, and there are limitations on fees required to move in to an apartment.
These rights have been won by tenants after years of organizing in Seattle, but don't apply in most other areas of the state. Even in Seattle, landlords constantly contested these tenant rights.
This was reflected in the fact that people came from all over Washington to protest the landlords' conference. Terry, a renter in Spokane and leader of the Tenants Union of Washington State, explained that half of renters there are "rent-burdened."
"People have to choose between reporting health and safety code violations, and being evicted and homeless or living in a home that is falling apart," Terry said.
Rally organizers noted that this issue isn't just an economic one. It reflects and reinforces oppression against women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people and the disabled. As Maria said, "Women are more likely than men to be in slum housing. The presence of children in the home makes eviction more likely."
Several speakers called for various partial solutions to the crisis. Esther called for "no permanent displacement"--in other words, the right of a tenant to return to her home after construction of a new development is complete.
She also called for developers to be forced to make 25 percent of units they construct "affordable" and "neighborhood review" of any new construction project.
CAN and other organizers are proposing two statewide initiatives. In 1981, the Democratic Party-controlled state legislature passed a law preventing cities from instituting rent control. In response, tenants' rights supporters have submitted a bill to the legislature repealing this.
The other proposal is a ban on source of income discrimination. This would prevent owners from refusing to rent to Section 8 recipients. Local organizers outside Seattle will also try to extend the Seattle tenants' rights laws to their areas.
This movement for renters' rights is part of the broader struggle that includes the demand to end homelessness. Housing For All is demanding a rapid increase in low-income housing and an end to the attack on homeless camps. Renters' rights and eliminating homelessness are two sides of the same coin, and many of the same groups are working on both issues.
This movement challenges the large profits of developers and landlords. As socialist city council member Kshama Sawant said at the rally, we can win gains for renters now--but we can't expect to solve the crisis of homelessness and the gouging of renters in a system based on the drive for profit.