United States: Lessons from the fight for rent control in Seattle

Varun Belur, Socialist Alternative (ISA in the United States)

(This article was first published on 30 August 2023)

As in most American cities, working people in Seattle face an unprecedented housing affordability crisis. The city’s rents nearly doubled between 2010 and 2020, and the situation became even more acute following the COVID pandemic and economic shock. Corporate landlords, massive property management companies, and rapacious Wall Street firms like Blackrock and Vanguard have made hundreds of billions of dollars for the wealthiest at the expense of working-class renters in cities like Seattle.

On Tuesday, August 1st, over 150 union members, renters, and working people packed Seattle City Hall to demand that Democrats address skyrocketing rents and take action against real estate profits by voting YES on socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s rent control legislation. What happened at that City Council meeting offered both a sobering reminder of the need for working and young people to break from the Democratic Party and, at the same time, a glimpse into the historic potential to build a fightback.

Progressive unions like UAW 4121, WFSE 1495, PROTEC17, and AFGE 3197 which represent thousands of working-class renters mobilized their members to the meeting, and members of many more unions across trades and sectors were present as well. Hundreds of working-class renters, young people, and union members spoke up throughout the months-long struggle in strong support of Sawant’s legislation, which would’ve capped rent increases at the rate of inflation for all Seattle renters. Over 13,000 people signed petitions since 2019 in support of Sawant’s bill. A 2020 statewide poll found that 71 percent of Washington’s likely voters support rent control.

Despite all this, every single Democrat on the Council, with the exception of one, voted against rent control. This includes self-proclaimed “progressives” and “labor Democrats.” Seattle’s most prominent progressive Democrat Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda didn’t even bother to show up for the vote, even though it would’ve meant just a few minutes over a Zoom call! The Seattle City Council has eight Democrats and one independent socialist.

We fight in the open

If it was up to the Democratic Party, Sawant’s rent control legislation would have never even been brought to a vote in the first place. It’s much easier for Democrats to kill progressive legislation behind closed doors: that’s why, in the absence of working-class fightback and an elected representative like Sawant, this is the modus operandi of Democrats at all levels of government. Democrats in the Washington state legislature have upheld a statewide ban on rent control for 42 years, despite holding a commanding majority and control of the Governor’s mansion for decades. And what happened to Medicare for All in Congress? It wasn’t voted down, it was simply abandoned behind the scenes, with the shameful acquiescence of Squad members like Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). Similarly, CalCare – legislation to bring Medicare for All in California – died without a vote, with the nearly 80-percent-majority Democratic legislature refusing to bring it to a vote. The same goes for Congressional Democrats with so many other progressive demands, like codifying Roe v. Wade, the $15/hour federal minimum wage, the Green New Deal, and paid family leave.

Socialist Alternative and Councilmember Sawant, Workers Strike Back, progressive union members, and community organizations fought for our rent control bill to be brought to a vote. We know that when we fight, we can win. And even if we couldn’t win rent control, we wanted to expose the so-called progressive Democrats on the City Council for what they are: stooges for Wall Street.

Joe Biden’s “Renters’ Bill of Rights” and ours

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden unveiled his “blueprint for a renters’ bill of rights” and in July, announced that his administration is “taking action to protect renters”. In reality, Biden’s “action” amounts to a set of toothless recommendations for real estate corporations and minor tweaks to public housing rules that do little to actually benefit working-class renters.

Let’s compare the renters’ rights record of the most powerful politician and Democrat in the country to that of a solitary fighting socialist on the Seattle City Council.

In nearly a decade on the City Council, Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative have demonstrated how to effectively win historic working-class victories by building powerful movements of rank-and-file working people to force the hand of Democrats. We have won unparalleled renters’ rights, including anti-slumlord laws that ban rent increases in poorly-maintained buildings, a ban on school-year evictions for students, teachers and their families, a six-month notice for all rent increases, full funding for eviction defense for all renters, and, most recently, a $10 monthly cap on late rent fees. We have made historic progress on a real renters’ bill of rights.

Cornel West 2024 and the power of independent, working-class politics 

It’s no coincidence that these working-class victories were led by the only independently-elected Marxist in the country. The Democratic party is controlled by the wealthy, and “progressive” Democrats play an insidious role by attempting to confuse working people. They will sometimes espouse progressive positions in rhetoric but primarily serve the ruling class by gatekeeping against struggles and attempting to co-opt any grassroots efforts. As Sawant has said, the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. It’s telling that the only politician to endorse Sawant’s rent control legislation was Cornel West, who is running an independent left campaign for president in 2024.

In his endorsement of Sawant’s legislation, West wrote: “If the Seattle City Council—with eight out of nine members being Democrats—allows this bill to fail, the Democratic Party will have made it clear once again that they stand with wealthy corporations, not working people and the most marginalized.”

Without our own political party, working people will continue to suffer betrayals at the hands of the ruling elite who have two parties to do their bidding. Socialist Alternative’s victories through Sawant’s office show that workers can win when we get organized and fight independently of the Democrats. Socialist Alternative and Workers Strike Back have been calling for a new party for working people. The Cornel West campaign is an opportunity to build a huge independent fightback on a national scale, particularly at a time when working people are being hit hard by a searing cost-of-living crisis and the Democrats and Republicans have made it clear that they have no solution.

We can build an alternative to corrupt capitalist politics today — but only if we fight!