Last Friday, Council members Tim Burgess, Lisa Herbold, and Mike O’Brien announced that they were introducing legislation to create a new Seattle Renters Commission to give renters better representation in local government decisions.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 52 percent of households in Seattle live in rental housing. And yet, they have been chronically under-represented in local government, especially under the old District Council system that was dominated by homeowners. This introduces diversity issues as well: 52 percent of white Seattle residents own their homes, versus 29 percent of African-American residents and 27 percent of Latino residents. Also, according to a 2013 survey by the Federal Reserve Board, the median net worth of renter households is less than 3% of the median net worth of homeowner households.
The goal of the new 15-member Renters Commission will be to “advise the Mayor and City Council on issues and policies of importance to tenants in residential rental properties citywide.” Specific duties include:
- providing information, advice and council to the Council, the Mayor, and several city departments on housing affordability, transportation access, green and other public spaces, land use, renter protections, public health and safety, education, economic growth, and other issues relevant to Seattle renters;
- monitoring the enforcement and effectiveness of legislation related to renters and renter protections;
- providing advice on strengthening and enhancing the enforcement and effectiveness of renter protections.
Six of the commission’s members will be selected by the City Council, and six by the Mayor. Two will be chosen by the Commission members to fill out their ranks, and the fifteenth member will be a young adult selected through the city’s Get Engaged program. All fifteen members must be confirmed by a majority vote of the City Council. The legislation states the intent to have the commission members represent the full diversity of Seattle renters, calling out specifically low income renters, LGBTQ renters, immigrants, those with felony renters, and those paying rent with assistance. The members should also have geographic diversity.
They are required to meet periodically with other city commissions, departments, the Seattle Housing Authority, and community groups (including landlords) to gather information, feedback and recommendations. The commission will also be required to submit an annual report to the Mayor and City Council.
Interestingly, the proposed legislation states that the Renters Commission will be staffed by the Department of Neighborhoods, rather than the Office of Housing. That’s an interesting choice, and it suggests that this new commission is one more piece (along with the Community Involvement Commission) in the plan to replace the District Councils with other forms of representation that gives a stronger voice to traditionally under-represented communities.
It’s curious that Council member Kshama Sawant, who has championed most of the tenant-rights related legislation over the last year, is not a co-sponsor of this bill.