This afternoon the City Council passed into law Council member Sawant’s proposed ordinance capping move-in fees for tenants and requiring landlords to offer an installment plan for paying moving fees over six months — but not without some controversy.
The bill has a colorful history, having been referred to Sawant’s Energy and Environment Committee (arguably because she is the subject matter expert on tenant rights) where she rushed it through to get it passed before the Council put everything on hold to focus on the budget. But her fellow Council members kicked it back to her committee to address some lingering concerns, and made a handful of additional amendments before bringing it back before the Council today.
Though they weren’t done amending it when it came up today. While it was still in committee, Council member Johnson offered an amendment that would exempt landlords renting out space in their primary residence. His stated reason was that since his committee oversees the Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), the city department that enforces landlord/tenant laws, he wanted to simplify matters for them, as well as for tenants and landlords, by making this ordinance consistent with the “first in time” ordinance passed recently that also exempts landlords renting out part of their primary residence. That amendment failed in committee, but Johnson offered it again today for the full Council’s consideration.
Council member Herbold countered by offering an amendment to Johnson’s amendment, which would only exempt the move-in fee cap and still require all landlords to offer an installment plan — essentially narrowing what she and Sawant saw as a “loophole.” Herbold’s amendment failed by a 4-4 vote, only earning the support of herself, Bagshaw, O’Brien and Sawant (Gonzalez was absent today).
There was contentious debate about Johnson’s amendment. Herbold, O’Brien and Sawant argued that the “first in time” bill’s exemption is a rare exception, and that the vast majority of tenant/landlord ordinances apply to all landlords. Further, they noted that the “first in time” exemption was justified because people renting out space in their home should have more discretion in choosing tenants, but that rationale doesn’t apply to a payment plan. Finally, they tried to make the case that as another exception it makes SDCI’s job more difficult, rather than less difficult.
Council members Juarez, Harrell, and Burgess, in expressing their support for Johnson’s amendment, all took issue with Sawant’s accusations that their votes had been bought by the landlords’ campaign contributions. Juarez went on to list the numerous reasons why she supported both Johnson’s amendment and the underlying ordinance. Harrell noted that there are both good and awful landlords out there, refused to lump all landlords together under an “evil” label, and refused to criticize the landlord organizations. Burgess addressed what he called the “false narrative” he hears more frequently in recent times that if they want to do legislation correctly by taking the time to fully address concerns, then they must be doing something sinister. He complained about the increase he sees in “labelling and deriding people,” and encouraged people to take a look at the national political scene and ask themselves if that’s what they want to see replicated locally.
Johnson’s unmodified amendment passed 5-3, with only O’Brien, Sawant and Herbold voting against it. The amended legislation then quickly passed by an 8-0 vote.
So what conclusions can be drawn from this?
First, the tide is shifting on “activism politics” in Seattle. Until very recently, Sawant and her activist followers had significant — and unanswered — sway, and it was obvious that the City Council felt enormous pressure to bow to their demands. But this fall, the groups that oppose Sawant’s initiatives have begun to organize as well, and are learning to fight back. Earlier this fall, when there was pressure to rein in the city’s response to unsanctioned homeless encampments, homeowners showed up at City Hall in large numbers and pushed back hard. Today, it was small landlords. The City Council members are big fans of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, and do their best to speak up for the under-represented and most vulnerable members of the Seattle community — those who traditionally have community activists advocating on their behalf. But the Council members are now also hearing from another demographic: those who want to moderate the Council’s most progressive acts. Moving forward, the emerging battlefronts are around upzones, as the MHA program is implemented around the city; witness the citizens who currently show up to committee meetings, all wearing green scarves, to push back on the U District rezone.
Second, many of the Council members seem to be deeply unhappy with the tone of the discussion as more issues are positioned as a fight between the privileged and the vulnerable. They seem to be taking a harder line on enforcing civility during public comment and in the audience during Council meetings, and are less tolerant of outbursts, disruptions, and personal attacks. But today’s simultaneous pushback by three Council members against Sawant’s combative rhetorical style was also an important precedent, signaling that they are tired of feeling bullied and are willing to stand together. In January, there were four newcomers on the Council, trying to get their feel for the job. Eleven months later, none of them are acting like newcomers any more; when pushed, they are proving capable of standing their ground.
Third, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Both sides see this as a fight to be won, with no compromises. Recently Sawant’s mantra has been “when we fight, we win,” and she arms her troops for every battle with a demand for no compromises and no concessions. While the opposition doesn’t have the same kind of clear figurehead leader, they are also adopting the same battle mentality. What’s missing is the understanding that good law almost always involves compromise and iteration, as well as leaders who can serve as diplomats and find the common ground to bring people together where everyone gets what they need, but no one gets everything they want. Sawant has no interest in that, and the Mayor seems dispositionally incapable of filling such a role. Herbold and Gonzalez have shown some ability to do this with the secure scheduling legislation they shepherded through earlier this year, but on the other hand Bagshaw and O’Brien have demonstrated with the unsanctioned homeless encampment debate their own lack of skills in this area. Juarez and Johnson could have the talent to do it, but they both are aggressively pursuing legislative agendas that will take precedent. Burgess will never be trusted by the left, and Harrell holds his cards too close to his chest to be an effective diplomat. So in the short term, it’s unclear what would change the political course that Seattle seems to be on.
The good news out of this is that despite big challenges, the Council is still writing good laws. Sawant’s ordinance started out as a good idea based on well-founded principles, and it got better each time it went through deliberation in committee. It will serve tenants well, and it’s unlikely to drive any landlords into bankruptcy.