EVERYBODY HATES LANDLORDS," says rookie Seattle City Council Member Judy Nicastro, laughing at her own outrageousness. Then she becomes serious, "Tenants are pissed. The tide

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Judy's rent rumble

City Hall rookie Judy Nicastro is declaring war on "greedy pig" landlords. But will she get the political support she needs from Seattle's mad-as-hell renter majority?

EVERYBODY HATES LANDLORDS," says rookie Seattle City Council Member Judy Nicastro, laughing at her own outrageousness. Then she becomes serious, "Tenants are pissed. The tide is turning." She knows she shouldn't talk so frankly to a reporter but she can't contain her emotion. "Everybody has a rental housing horror story." If not about themselves then one about their "son or daughter or grandkid."

Nobody at City Hall speaks plain English like this. The last person to try was Charlie Chong and he only lasted a year. And he sure as hell wasn't 34 years old, busting with energy, drive, charisma, and ambition. Most importantly, Chong's core constituents were folks from single-family neighborhoods concerned about runaway growth and mad-as-hell little guys pissed about government pork. Nicastro is fighting for renters, a group that makes up a majority of the city (around 52 percent) but which is viewed by political insiders as young, transient, and unlikely to vote or lobby City Hall. In other words: insignificant.

Nicastro says she has a "mandate to fight" on behalf of renters. Sure she only won by 1,551 votes out of 157,000 cast, but as she puts it: "I knew if I could tie [my opponent, Cheryl Chow,] to landlords, I would win the election." It's hard to see any other reason for her victory in last November's contest. After all, she started the election with virtually no name recognition, she raised $81,000 to her opponent's $97,000, and she bounced around on the issues like a crazed pinball. Nicastro didn't have significant establishment support; she didn't have the backing of the grassroots from the relatively strong neighborhood movement or the weak but feisty left-wing activists. She didn't even have enough money to do any mailings in the last crucial weeks of her election race. Yet she beat an opponent, Cheryl Chow, who had twice before won election to City Council.

Nicastro also beat the landlord lobby that threw a bucketload of cash into Chow's coffers and into an independent expenditure campaign to boot. It is difficult to say for certain whether a renters' surge at the polls actually elected Nicastro, but her largest margin of victory came in the renter-heavy 43rd District that includes Capitol Hill and the U District. Nicastro believes that by making the election a referendum on landlords, she attracted a broad cross section of voters—both renters and homeowners. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether she actually received a mandate from the electorate because she believes passionately she has one and she's in office.

Spiraling costs drive the debate over rental housing. Nicastro estimates an average Seattle one-bedroom has seen its rent jump by 25 percent over the last five years, from $608 in 1995 to $756 today. In specific neighborhoods, rents have jumped much higher and faster: Belltown, home to 4,000 rentals, has seen rents increase by 35 percent; Central District rents went up a whopping 54 percent. "Lots of people around the city have experienced rent hikes. They are angry and they should be," comments Nicastro.

The landlord lobby is shitting bricks over Nicastro's attempts to fan the flames of class resentment. "There is a war brewing," warns Paul Birkeland, vice president of the powerful Apartment Association of Seattle & King County (AASK). "What is [Nicastro's] agenda? What is she trying to accomplish if it isn't rent control or some euphemism?"

Birkeland argues the cost of everything, not just rentals, is going up. "In the long run rent has not gone up nearly as much as the cost of buying a house or a postage stamp or a hamburger."

Nicastro and Birkeland do agree on some things. For instance, city government cannot control the rents of private apartments . . . yet. Back in 1981, local activists, including John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, put a rent control initiative on Seattle's ballot. It lost badly. The landlords raised a tremendous amount of money opposing it. In fact they had so much left over that they went to the state Legislature and had rent control banned statewide.

EIGHTEEN YEARS LATER, Nicastro made her mark politically by mounting a campaign to overturn the state ban. She packed the house on Capitol Hill with a forum called "Rents out of control," founded an organization (Local Housing Needs Local Laws), and lobbied like hell in Olympia. The Legislature, surprising all political observers, actually held a hearing on the subject and drafted a bill exempting Seattle from the state ban. The bill ultimately went nowhere, but Nicastro used the campaign to launch herself politically.

Now Nicastro is gearing up to "bring home the bacon" for renters. Step one: her renters' summit this weekend at Seattle Center (see box). Step two: Develop good policy to help tenants. Step three: line up a majority, five votes, on the City Council.

Despite all this sound and fury, what can Nicastro really do for renters? She plans on using both carrots and sticks to persuade landlords to keep rents affordable and living conditions decent.

The carrots are incentives to increase the supply of new apartments. Currently City Hall has all kinds of regulations that make construction of new apartments more expensive—for instance, requiring 1.5 parking spaces per apartment. And some regulations inhibit construction entirely. Most of Seattle is zoned exclusively for single-family houses. Supply-siders like Mayor Paul Schell use the familiar supply-and-demand arguments from Econ 101: cutting regulations and increasing the number of apartments will eventually help control the runaway costs that are driving the rental crisis.

Landlords like this approach because they say it means less government interference in the "free market." Tenant activists such as John Fox don't favor it because they believe it encourages gentrification and subsidizes landlords' profits. Nicastro thinks incentives are part of the solution, but they have to be tailored very carefully so they don't become "giveaways."

On the other end of the policy continuum are the sticks: regulatory measures that government imposes on rental housing. One of the strongest restriction options is rent control. Landlords say there is too much regulation in Seattle already: The city requires 60 days notice before landlords can increase rent more than 10 percent, poor tenants can receive cold hard cash from landlords when they have to move, and landlords can be thrown in the pokey for retaliating against tenants who assert their legal rights. Activists say the playing field is far from level—landlords still have the upper hand. They want more regulations. Nicastro agrees.

Although conventional wisdom says that regulations will have more direct effect on renters' lives, activists and politicians also acknowledge that regulations are harder to pass. That political reality is not only due to opposition by the landlord lobby, but also because the state Legislature and the state Supreme Court (both of which have a more conservative, property-rights protection outlook than the Seattle City Council), have outlawed so many areas of regulation.

Incentives, while easier to pass, appeal more directly to developers and landlords. To the average renter staring at a major rent increase, they mean jack. As Deputy Mayor Tom Byers puts it, "The tools we have are long term and complex, and it's hard [for renters] to see the nexus." As Nicastro tries to enact new laws that are meaningful to renters, she faces this challenge.

A close examination of some of the more promising regulations currently alive in the City Council shows that the landlords don't need to worry so much. New regulations aren't going to rain down like rent increases or anything.

CASEY WANTS A BAT

For Casey Korder, the new sticks can't come fast enough. His rent is going from $400 to $1,200 a month. Korder lives in a dream dump. His Capitol Hill digs on 15th Avenue are just a few blocks from Volunteer Park in an old house that was butchered to make apartments. Korder has lived there for seven years. He's a musician and producer, specializing in ukulele recordings. His own band, The Ukulele Freedom Front, plays "punk rock ukulele."

Korder, 34, shares his home with a beagle, a lab mutt, and a roommate. The old landlord never raised the rent, and from the looks of the place, never did anything else either. But this year a new landlord, Jeffrey Morgan, bought the building. Morgan paid top dollar for the place and has to raise the rents to pay his mortgage. Korder can't possibly afford the new rent, so he and his dogs are looking for a new home.

"This week I am helping seven people move off Capitol Hill because of the rents," Korder says. "The wealthy are taking over the Hill. It's because of all the dot-com jobs."

As Korder looks for a new home, it's not only the cost of housing that concerns him. Just looking is expensive. "When I first moved to Seattle I got stuck with screening costs of $25 to $60" for each apartment he applied for.

Background screenings are a tool that assists landlords. Screening companies can check on everything from someone's credit history to their criminal record. Korder would like the City Council to pass a law creating a mobile background check.

A proposed law floating around the City Council—the Tenant Screening Ordinance (TSO)—would codify Korder's wishes by enabling him to buy a single screening that would be good for 45 days or so, which he could carry himself from landlord to landlord, thus avoiding multiple charges.

Nicastro says, "It's a great idea." She included support for the TSO in her campaign last fall. Unfortunately while it seems like a simple reform, Nicastro acknowledges, "It's clearly not on a fast track."

AASK's Birkeland hates the idea of a mobile credit check. Birkeland explains that landlords are turning over an investment frequently worth over $100,000 to someone they don't know. "It's like handing your tenant a Mercedes and all you have is this little tiny credit report." Birkeland says landlords just hold their breath and pray, "Don't run a meth lab. Don't burn the building down." Birkeland says when you make the background check mobile, you increase the likelihood of fraud and you decrease the landlord's peace of mind.

Korder dismisses the fraud concern. "There's fraud everywhere you go. I don't think that's enough reason to shoot it down."

But the City Council, including Nicastro, feels concern about fraud is very legitimate. In addition, the City Council has struggled with enforcement of such a law—there is no obvious department to take it over.

Moreover, tenants aren't exactly flooding City Hall with demands to get this legislation moving. "Credit checks aren't as tangible to people as rent hikes," admits Nicastro.

AN OFFER YOU CAN'T REFUSE

"It was like being kicked in the gut," says Judy Crutchfield, recalling the day she received notice that her rent was increasing from $168 to $894 a month. Crutchfield, 63, lives on a fixed income from social security disability. She was disabled by an on-the-job back injury while working as a maintenance foreman at the Tacoma Mall.

Crutchfield lives in a neat-as-a-pin, 525-square-foot one-bedroom on the 11th floor of Security House, a 107-unit modernist skyscraper in Belltown. She can see Lake Union out her window. "I'm in the window a lot watching the seaplanes land," she says.

Security House only houses "Section 8" tenants, people whose rent is subsidized by the federal government. Under the Section 8 program, low-income elderly and disabled residents pay 30 percent of their income as rent. Naturally that doesn't amount to much. The landlords are paid additional money by the feds to bring the rents up to "market rates."

There are 78 buildings in Seattle, home to 3,900 rentals, which receive federal subsidies, according to Nicastro. The federal government has changed the rules of the game and created a crisis in Section 8 housing. Formerly, landlords could sign 20-year contracts guaranteeing the federal subsidy. Now it's year to year and many landlords are opting out of the Section 8 program.

Crutchfield's landlord wanted to jump the Section 8 ship and raise the rents to market rates. Crutchfield shakes her head, "The owners are looking for the dollar all the time." With the help of the Tenants Union, she and her fellow tenants organized and became "the poster child building" for the Section 8 crisis. All kinds of rumors tore through the building. The owner decided to sell. Anxiety increased. Eventually a nonprofit housing provider bought the building and after a lengthy battle chose to remain in the Section 8 program. A success story, right?

Not so fast. "Sixty-three people moved when the scare went through," says Crutchfield. That's why Crutchfield supports the right of first refusal law currently on hold in the City Council.

The idea behind such a law is that poor people about have their apartments sold out from under them can match the offer and buy the building themselves. But where would they get the money? A similar state law already applies to mobile home parks. The state experience has shown that nonprofit housing developers can step in and help tenants purchase their building. Such developers provide access to capital by tapping city, state, federal, and foundation money—as well as the tenants' own savings.

Crutchfield believes if a right of first refusal had been in place, fewer tenants would have fled at the first sign of trouble.

The right of first refusal is the activists' top priority and Nicastro will highlight the idea at her renters' summit, but don't look for legislation to pass anytime soon. Of course, AASK is vociferously opposed. AASK says such a law unduly interferes in the free market. More importantly, Peter Steinbrueck, chair of the City Council's housing committee, has sat on the law for years. Currently he's waiting for the state Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the state version that protects mobile home parks. Even if the Supreme Court doesn't strike the state law down, it's not clear the Seattle version has the necessary five votes to pass.

RENTS AND RETALIATION

"When they doubled the amount of the increase, people went crazy," Juli Hughes recalls, describing the passion surrounding the launch of the Biltmore Tenants Collective. Hughes and her fellow tenants were at the center of one of the highest profile rent fights in recent years.

Living at the Biltmore is practically a "rite of passage" for young, hip Seattleites, says Hughes. The Biltmore is a classic brick courtyard building from the early 1900s, complete with artful terracotta work, a turret corner piece straight out of a fairy tale, and ivy snaking across its fa硤e. Located on the lower west side of Capitol Hill, just around the corner from Coffee Messiah and Apocalypse Tattoo, the Biltmore is a seven-story, 135-unit building. Hughes lives in a 480-square-foot studio and as of her 34th birthday, June 1, 2000, her rent increased to $650. An architect at Environmental Works, a nonprofit, she will be able to swing the increase, but it ain't easy. "What does a tenant do?" she asks.

Hughes already asserted her legal rights and feels her landlords punished her for doing so. In the spring of 1999, new owners bought the Biltmore and RP Management, a company that manages roughly 2000 units in Seattle, took over. Rents went up that summer. Hughes' rent increased from $500 to $549. Since the former owner had raised the rents in March, RP Management had failed to give the necessary 60 days notice for an increase of 10 percent or more in a 12-month period. Tenants organized and demanded the increase be rescinded.

RP Management's Jeffreyanne Sheridan says the mistake was unwitting. RP didn't know the previous landlord had raised the rent in March.

RP did in fact retract the rent increase. But next the company gave the legally required notice and doubled everyone's rent increase. The tenants exploded. They organized protests, held press conferences attended by Nicastro and other politicians, picketed one of the owners' businesses, and claimed unfair retaliation.

Retaliating against tenants for asserting their legal rights is a criminal offense in Seattle. Therefore, the city attorney's office examined the case. However, after months of consideration, the city attorney declined to press charges. According to Mike Finkel, assistant city attorney, RP Management "can produce evidence . . . that the purpose of its rent increases was to bring rents up to market rates and that increases in the range ultimately imposed were planned before the tenant complaints regarding the notice issue."

"I don't feel we have a lot of support from the city," says Hughes with deep disappointment.

Nicastro calls RP Management "greedy pigs." She says, "I think what they do is cruel."

Nicastro wants to put more teeth in the retaliation law by giving the city an option to prosecute landlords under civil law instead of criminal law when appropriate. Since convictions in civil cases only need a preponderance of evidence, while criminal convictions require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Nicastro feels a civil component to the rent retaliation law would be a good preventative measure. Chris Benis, an attorney and landlord active in AASK, is chilly to the idea. "You get into a civil liberties issue," Benis says. Benis is worried about extending the government's power to take people to court in civil cases. He points to excesses of civil forfeiture in the drug war as an example of where this kind of thinking can lead. "We don't want government doing that kind of stuff."

Nicastro hopes to introduce the measure soon. How her City Council colleagues will respond is an open question. Her determination, however, is not in question. "If we don't do very bold, aggressive legislation, we will lose the soul of Seattle," she warns.

OUT OF THE PALM OF HIS HAND

John Palmer fell in love with Seattle in junior high. Growing up in a suburb near Tacoma, Palmer used to come visit his older sister in the "big city" on the weekend. "I'd come up for the day but it was never long enough," he recalls.

Four years ago, he was finally able to move to Seattle. Now at 35, working a couple of part-time jobs, he doesn't know if he can afford to stay. "People like me who make $16,000 a year, we're being priced out of the city." Palmer pays $490 a month for a 410-square-foot studio on lower Queen Anne. The 74-unit brick building was built in 1924 and has oodles of old world charm—Murphy beds, walk-in closets, built-in cabinets, and lots of light and air even in a small space like Palmer's. The way Queen Anne real estate is going you can see why Palmer feels nervous about his future. It used to be a "ghost town, now it's becoming 'the neighborhood,'" he complains. When he first moved into the building, his friends thought he was paying a bit much, four years later they'd kill for a "great deal" like his. "We need to put something in place to keep the rents from going through the roof," he says. "Rent control or rent stabilization."

Palmer knows that rent control has been banned by the state Legislature. He hopes Nicastro can lead a coalition to overturn that ban. She intends to do just that. Surprisingly she has support from a majority of her colleagues on the City Council. Although most of them are opposed to rent control, the state ban was written so broadly that it prevents Seattle from enacting other regulatory schemes: for example, the right to demand a six-month lease from a landlord who raises the rent.

Other council members oppose the state ban simply because they feel Seattle deserves local control. That's always how Nicastro frames the battle: "We can dink around with all of these policies and give incentives but until we have local control we will always be a city on our knees." Nicastro plans to start lobbying the Legislature this summer. This time she is coming as an elected official, not just a citizen activist. It won't be easy.

The landlords will fight to the death to stop her. Birkeland warns new construction will cease if investors feel rent control is creeping any closer. "Ms. Nicastro has already had an effect on the housing market," he claims. He says landlords will just start converting apartments into condos and "get rid of the risk that someone will control your business."

Nicastro doesn't discount AASK's power, but she isn't looking to compromise. "We will never see eye-to-eye on rent regulation," she states frankly.

PREVIOUSLY THE culture at City Hall has not taken kindly to people who shake things up. Charlie Chong became an outcast because of his bluntness. His efforts at rabble-rousing from inside City Hall earned him opprobrium from all corners. So far, Nicastro's efforts have not earned her the same kind of scorn.

Many of her colleagues find her enthusiasm infectious. They admire her focus. And she is praised for her thoughtfulness as well as her political smarts.

Nicastro clearly possesses the skills to build bridges with other politicians that Chong lacked. For instance, powerful City Council President Margaret Pageler is backing Nicastro's assault on the state ban on rent control. "It takes leadership that is younger and brasher than I" to tackle these issues, Pageler notes approvingly. "She may get some good wins."

Yet in order to really make progress, Nicastro will need more than political skill, as she herself acknowledges. In order to win, Nicastro needs a "mass movement" of "ordinary tenants" on her side to lobby the state Legislature and City Hall. "When the public is silent, their issues are not heard," she points out. This weekend's renters' summit can be a first step in building such a movement.

Will tenants respond to her clarion call? There aren't mass movements about anything in politically quiescent Seattle. Membership at the Tenants Union, the city's largest tenants-rights group, is on the rise but has only reached around 850, according to TU staffer Scott Winn. It also remains to be seen whether a city council member can organize a grassroots movement. "She can't do that given the constraints of her job," argues Winn.

Considering the long odds Nicastro faces, everything needs to go right if she is going to make headway. But then again, Nicastro didn't get as far as she already has by paying attention to conventional wisdom—she thrives on defying it.

Let's get ready to rumble!!

What: Renters' Summit

When: Saturday, June 10, 8:30am-1:00 pm

Where: Northwest rooms of Seattle Center

Workshops: rent control, housing codes, parking requirements, the right of first refusal, increased density

Wonk: Professor Dennis Keating, an expert on rent control, gives keynote speech

Want more info? Judy Nicastro 615-1567

www.ci.seattle.wa.us/leg/nicastro/strategy.htm

 
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