Photo by Brandon Macz
Photo by Brandon Macz

A proposal championed during the first Capitol Hill Renter Summit last September, the city council is now poised to create a Seattle Renters’ Commission, providing a representative voice for more than half of the city’s households.

Capitol Hill Housing, which hosted the renter summit with the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, has been pushing for more better rights and representation through its Renter Initiative group since last year.

“They are engaged, motivated advocates for everything that makes neighborhoods great,” said Capitol Hill EcoDistrict director Joel Sisolak during the council’s Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods & Finance Committee meeting Friday, March 3.

Capitol Hill Community Council president and Seattle Housing Authority commissioner Zachary DeWolf, a longtime proponent of a renters’ commission, said the advisory group will be able to address equity and inclusivity for Seattle renters, with the goal of keeping the city affordable and livable.

Renters represent 80 percent of households in Capitol Hill.

As proposed, the 15-member Seattle Renters’ Commission would be comprised of six mayoral picks, six chosen by the council, two appointed by the commission and one reserved for a participant of Get Engaged, a YMCA program to get youth civically engaged.

“We have a lot of issues that touch renters, but they’re not usually at the table,” said Seferiana Day, legislative assistant with Councilmember Tim Burgess’ office.

Day said Seattle has a sizable racial disparity in homeownership, with 53 percent being white owners, compared to 29 and 27 percent for blacks and Latinos, respectively. The average cost for a home in Seattle in December 2016 was $635,000, she said, up 10 percent from the year before. While many renters face barriers to homeownership, Day said, many also choose to rent.

If approved, the Seattle Renters’ Commission  will provide insight and recommendations on a number of issues concerning renters, including transportation access, land use, economic development and public health and safety. It won’t just focus on tenants’ rights, Day said.

The commission would develop an annual work plan with staffing assistance from the Department of Neighborhoods. Burgess said DON has a good rapport with many neighborhoods, but also had enthusiasm and interest in working with the commission.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out that a city presentation on the commission states 52 percent of households live in rentals, but the Seattle Times, referring to the American Community Survey, states 52 percent of structures are occupied by renters.

“This is a data point that is a little bit in dispute,” Herbold said.

The councilmember asked that the council address the city Human Rights Commission’s request that one member of the renters’ commission either be homeless or have experience with homelessness.

Washington Multi-Family Housing Association government affairs director Brett Waller previously expressed concern the new commission could be reserved just for renters, Herbold said, asking that the composition of the commission also include representation from organizations that work on behalf of renters.

Burgess said the ordinance creating the commission calls for geographic representation, because renter issues differ among Seattle’s many neighborhoods.

Councilmember Rob Johnson said ordinance language refers to renters in residential structures, but he’d like flexibility to add a commercial renter’s voice to the commission. He said he’s been hearing a lot from commercial renters in relation to the recent rezoning in the University District.

The city council has taken steps in the past year to increase renter protections in Seattle, including prohibiting discrimination based on income, and then passing District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s legislation capping move-in fees.

The next committee discussion is set for Wednesday, March 15. If approved then, the ordinance would go to the full council on Monday, March 20. Once approved, the application and appointment process would take place April-June, with the first Seattle Renters’ Commission meeting taking place in July.