SEATTLE -- Renters could soon have a louder voice in Seattle’s City Hall, where a proposal to create a renters’ commission is under consideration.
The commission, made up of 15 volunteers, would inform and guide the city council, mayor, and city leaders on topics like affordable housing, transportation, public safety, and neighborhood planning, all from the perspective of people who live under a lease.
Advocates of the renters’ commission say many tenants don’t have the time, resources, or ability to show up to public meetings and voice their concerns.
Take for example Noelle Symanski, who rents a studio apartment for $1,100 in a century-old building on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve made it to one City Hall meeting in my four years living here because I took work off that day, but it’s tough to make it to an actual city council meeting. It’s not easy to make it when you work a 9-5 schedule,” said Symanski, who works for an environmental law firm.
Seattle has a wide range of commissions which pull expertise and advice from beyond City Hall. They represent refugees and immigrants, people with disabilities, park users, youths, members of the LGBTQ community, and even musicians, but there’s never been a city-sanctioned group committed specifically to the priorities of renters.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, renters occupied nearly 52% of the housing in Seattle. There has been an explosion of apartment construction in recent years as thousands of people have flocked to the city, making it one of the fastest-growing in the country. The median rent price in Seattle is $2,400, according to Zillow.
“It has taken us awhile to get organized,” said Zachary DeWolf, president of the Capitol Hill Community Council, which, along with the group Capitol Hill Housing and a coalition of other non-profits, helped launch the renters’ commission idea.
It gained traction last year, following a renter summit on Capitol Hill. Tenants and supporters of the commission proposal say they want to push back on stereotypes that renters are transient, not engaged in community politics, and disconnected from their blocks.
“We're trying to get organized to say we’re ready to engage,” DeWolf said.
The renters’ commission proposal, sponsored by council members Tim Burgess, Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien, was discussed during a meeting of the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods & Finance Committee last week. The committee is expected to bring it up again next week.
One of the groups opposed to the idea is the Rental Housing Association of Washington. External affairs director Sean Martin called the commission proposal a “kind of window dressing for tenants” which he doesn’t think would address larger concerns, such as a shortage of housing, which is helping to drive up rents.
The organization, which represents landlords, is concerned the proposed commission would make it more difficult for property owners to have a say in city government.
“We’re concerned that this is shutting landlords’ voices out even further,” Martin said.