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caption: Many have wondered what Kshama Sawant's next fight will be, now that Seattle has a $15 minimum wage (to be phased in over several years). At City Hall on Thursday night, she'll make the case for legalizing rent control. 
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Many have wondered what Kshama Sawant's next fight will be, now that Seattle has a $15 minimum wage (to be phased in over several years). At City Hall on Thursday night, she'll make the case for legalizing rent control.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Is Seattle Ready For Rent Control? Kshama Sawant Thinks So

Seattle’s rents are rising fast – San Francisco, San Jose and Denver are the only cities outpacing us, according to real estate research firm Reis.

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant says there's a way to stop that trend.

“Everywhere I go, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, I hear people talking about the skyrocketing rent," Sawant said. "And when I ask them, 'What do you think we should do about it,' invariably they tell me: ‘We need some sort of rent control.’”

Sawant and council colleague Nick Licata want state lawmakers to remove a statewide ban on rent control. "Real political leadership means finding a way to do it. Lots of good things have been illegal in the past," she said.

Sawant said rent control is one part of a broader strategy that must include city investment in thousands of affordable housing units.

Sawant will make the case for rent control at a town hall meeting on affordable housing Thursday night at City Hall. She asks people to bring their stories of skyrocketing rents.

Others say rent control will make things worse. Stephen O’Connor is with the UW’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies. “You’re gonna be hard pressed to find anyone in our capitalistic society who’s going to be willing to build something with a significant restriction on rent.”

O'Connor offers the following cautionary scenario: Say rent control caps an existing unit at $1,200 a month. Say rent is allowed to rise with the consumer price index, about 2 percent a year. Meanwhile, expenses might rise at 4 to 6 percent a year. That means income isn't matching expenses.

"At some point in time," O'Connor said, "that disincentive affects the quality of that building. And developers and owners will stop improving it." In extreme cases, he says buildings could be abandoned by their owners.

O'Connor says that if we want affordable housing, we should subsidize rents for low-income earners. He says that kind of public investment would give developers the room to lower rents, without putting the brakes on new development.