America's First Renters' Commission May Start Up in Seattle

Photo by  gdsteam

Photo by gdsteam

Seattle, WA may be the first city in the US to create a formal “renters’ commission” to advise the local government. We interviewed Zachary DeWolf, who spearheaded the commission idea, to hear about the process and his hopes for this new model of renter engagement.

DeWolf, who serves as president of the Capitol Hill Community Council, has long been passionate about empowering renters. He says his own neighborhood is 85% renters and that the city needs to do a better job of listening to their voices. “We have something to say,” DeWolf explains. “We have a perspective, insights, and thoughts about how to shape our city” just as much as homeowners do. He points out that, while home ownership may carry with it a perception of long-term investment in a neighborhood, he has neighbors who have rented in the same area for 25 years and who care just as much about their city as owners do.

After local uproar from Seattle homeowners over a modest proposal to increase multifamily zoning throughout the city by 6% (Seattle is currently 65% single family zoned), Seattle’s mayor quickly rejected the idea. That was a catalyst for conversation among renters about how to have their voices better heard in the city. DeWolf gave a presentation at a community forum last May discussing the history of renters’ exclusion from local decision making and presented the five city council members there with an idea: to create a renters commission.

To garner support for the renters’ commission, DeWolf then met with local groups that address related issues, organized his neighbors, wrote an op-ed in the Seattle Times and developed relationships with Seattle city councilors. One, Tim Burgess, stepped up to officially support the effort and sponsor legislation to move it forward.

If it passes, the renters’ commission will be the first of its kind in the United States. While some grassroots tenant groups exist in other cities, most are focused specifically on housing issues and aren’t official partners with the government. This sort of broad-based government advisory group is unique in the US (though DeWolf says he’s aware of a similar organization in Vancouver, Canada). The fifteen-member volunteer board would advise the government, not just on issues related directly to housing but on general issues that renters care about (just as much as homeowners) such as transportation, parks, schools and sidewalks.

The final legislation to create the commission “was developed in partnership with the Capitol Hill Community Council, Capitol Hill Housing, Tenants Union, Washington CAN, Associated Students of the University of Washington, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, and LGBTQ Allyship,” as reported on the Seattle City Council’s website.

When asked about his goals for the new group, DeWolf says that’s up to the fifteen members of the commission. He has some ideas, though. The primary goal is, of course, to offer, “an organized place where renters are talking about issues that are important to them,” DeWolf says. He could also see the group helping to advise the Seattle government on issues like tenant laws and inspection ordinances. Additionally, DeWolf is personally interested in seeing renters more involved in local elections and voting, and the renters’ commission could help to increase that civic participation.

As some other articles about the renters’ commission have noted, not everyone is enthusiastic about this initiative. Some have asked why there’s not a landlords’ commission. However, in keeping with the form of the Seattle city government’s other advisory groups (representing people with disabilities, women, and LGBTQ people, for example), the group is focused on elevating a voice that is currently missing from much of the local conversation. That’s not such an issue for landlords.

Empowering renters through this new renters commission will also organically empower minorities and low-income families to a greater degree, because they are disproportionately renters as opposed to owners.

The idea for the commission comes at an especially needed time for renters in Seattle. CityLab reports,

Between June 2015 and June 2016, monthly rents in Seattle soared at a rate four times the national average, forcing out many low-income renters. There have since been some signs of relief within the city, but regional rents continue to rise. About half of Seattle’s households rent…

The renters’ commission is being discussed in committee today and put to a vote in front of the full Seattle City Council on Monday, March 20. If it passes, it could become a model for other cities in the future.

(Top photo by Maciek Lulko)

Related stories