Cops and renters

The revolution is dead. Long live the revolution.

That's the lesson—one of them—to be gleaned from HB 2155, the short-lived Olympia legislation that would have lifted the state's ban on rent control for cities with more than 400,000 in population. (Unless Spokane or Tacoma were to suddenly mushroom dramatically in the next few weeks, that's a polite way of saying it was a Seattle-only bill.) HB 2155 was introduced by Reps. Velma Veloria and Ed Murray in January, but died a quiet death last week as Veloria and Housing Committee co-chair Steve Van Luven failed to give the bill a hearing by a February 23 deadline.

The notable—in many respects, amazing—story is that the bill got that far at all. Rent control has a decidedly bad reputation in mainstream political circles, one tended by a politically well-connected landlord lobby for whom it is Satan incarnate. In fact, the landlords got the statewide rent-control ban passed after soundly drubbing the 1980 Seattle rent-control initiative.

For nearly two decades, that end run around local control has worked. But the second half of the '90s has seen a steadily worsening crisis in affordable housing in the Seattle area: one that has struck particularly hard at renters (51 percent of the city rents) and first-time home buyers. Literally everyone knows people with a horror story, or a half-dozen of them, of a tight market, exorbitant rent increases, and landlords who abuse their tenants with near-impunity. In many ways, the housing crisis is reshaping the geography of who can afford to live within the city of Seattle. Paul Schell's much-vaulted housing agenda—build more condos—offers little hope.

Into this volatile political mix stepped Local Housing Needs Local Laws, the loosely organized Seattle group that has sought to overturn the state ban. The astonishing response on short notice—a February 2 public forum drew more than 200 people—has demonstrated both the scope of the problem and the potential for future political mayhem. Local Housing's intent is to line up support for a more-than-symbolic run at Olympia next year, and to get City Council support as well. (The city declined to amend its lobbying priorities to include overturning the ban on rent control.) The group's convener, Judy Nicastro, has also declared for this year's City Council races.

Will all that grassroots energy result, down the road, in relief for Seattle's beleaguered renters? If the group can stay focused and organized, chances are better than they'd seem. Rent control itself is an unlikely prospect, but as leverage, the threat of it can be used to extract other useful concessions from our currently landlord-friendly city government.

And in any event, the flowering of a movement that demands Olympia pay attention to actual problems in people's lives (housing, health care) rather than stadium building or gay bashing can only be a good thing.

Ganging up

There are fewer bills in Oly this year that are genuinely abhorrent. The new Democratic majority in Olympia, while lacking in progressive (or even vaguely liberal) legislation, has also lacked a lot of the whacked-out, terrifying right-wing social legislation that marred the last two sessions. Anti-abortion bills, gay bashing, and other Christian Coalition specialties are scarce in Olympia this time.

Unfortunately, one species of bad bill hasn't gone away: idiotic tough-on-crime legislation. The Republicans got the blame last time around for deluging the state books with so many bad new laws that even the cops were begging them to stop. But curtailing civil liberties and targeting black youth in the name of public safety is a bipartisan effort, as evidenced by a horrendous new bill sponsored by—among others—the very liberal Sen. Adam Kline of the city's ethnically diverse 37th District. Kline says he signed onto the bill in order to amend it and make it "tighter and community-empowered." Now in the face of widespread public opposition, he plans to vote against it. As you learn more about the bill's provisions, Kline's explanation for his sponsorship seems more and more questionable.

The "Gang and Abatement of Homes Law" (SB 5158, HB 1655), still in committee at this writing, uses the public's fear of gangs—and all youth of color—to add some dangerous new provisions to an already- abused law, the Drug and Abatement of Homes Law. That's the lucrative scam that allows authorities to seize (and sell at a profit) private property thought to be associated with drug trafficking, without bothering with legal niceties like a trial and proof of guilt. Some of the money from these abatements goes directly to the police department involved, which is effectively a commission for seizing property without a trial.

The new legislation would allow courts to seize the homes and/or businesses of property owners who allow so-called gang members or gang activity on their property. In the hands of a city attorney like Mark Sidran, you can imagine whose businesses would be shut down.

But it gets worse. A "gang" is defined by the bill as "a group of three or more persons with an identifiable leadership and/or identifiable name, sign, or symbol, and on an on-going basis, conspires and acts in concert mainly for criminal purposes." Under the bill, a "gang member" can be identified as such by admitting he/she is a gang member, by being identified as a gang member by two or more snit . . . er, "reliable sources," by being in the company of known gang members (that's right, guilt by association), or by being listed as a gang member in law enforcement documents (guilt by suspicion of guilt).

The law would increase the common police tactic of "profiling" youth and people of color. It defines "gang" so broadly as to include, in some neighborhoods, almost anyone who has friends. It allows forfeiture on the basis of who your friends are or who is "allowed" on your property.

It is, in short, the kind of law used in a police state.

As a social experiment, the "War on Drugs" has been an expensive and abject failure; extending its constitutionally challenged tools to whatever other public nuisances might be out there is a giant leap in the wrong direction. These laws are invariably intended to make people feel more secure. They shouldn't.

 
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