On Tuesday morning, Esther “Little Dove” John sat in her office at North Seattle Friends Church where the 65 year old works as an administrative assistant. She was there to cram in a few work hours prior to speaking at a tenants rights rally later that afternoon. She wore a red blazer with white flowers embroidered into the sleeves and her braided hair was wrapped around her head like a halo. Originally from White Plains, New York, John has acted as a community organizer in Seattle for nearly four decades. John’s first political act was as a high school student, registering voters. Since then, she has advocated for the rights of others for most of her life. Now she is advocating for herself and others like her as the self-proclaimed “poster elder” of Seattleites displaced by development.
It started on May 24, 2016, when John received a letter from her landlord informing her that the Beacon Hill building she had lived in for 12 years had been sold. It would be demolished to make way for 44 small efficiency dwelling units. However, the letter didn’t notify her when she would need to leave, so she scrambled to find a new place.
“I tried for almost a year to find something I could afford on Beacon Hill that would accommodate me as a person with a disability … and I couldn’t afford anything,” John said in a soft voice as a piano tuner played a range of notes in the background. She’s still living in her place for now until she receives further notice from the landlord.
Rising rents and weak tenant laws place a disproportionate burden on women, people of color, seniors, and those with disabilities, John says. But she says she’s hopeful that community organizing will help her remain in her apartment and advocate for other elderly renters on fixed incomes.
John was one of several speakers in an all-women lineup who shared their experiences of displacement, poor living conditions and homelessness at the rally held outside of the Washington State Convention Center on Tuesday. City Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant also spoke at the demonstration hosted by grassroots lobbying group Washington Community Action Network (CAN) and co-sponsored by several community and labor organizations. The councilmembers spoke about their support of affordable housing and a need for rent stabilization. Later, in the closing moments of the tenant rights rally, Democratic State Representative Nicole Macri announced that she would be introducing legislation to repeal the statewide ban on rent control in the 2018 legislative session.
Washington’s ban on rent control, which passed in 1981, has prevented Seattle from regulating rent like other cities experiencing growing pains such as New York and San Francisco. A year beforehand, Seattle voters also rejected a ballot initiative to impose rent regulation.
The rally was planned to coincide with a conference and trade show for the Rental Housing Association and Washington Landlord Association being held inside the glass-clad convention center. The two groups remained separated for most of the event, though some protesters infiltrated the convention, sharing houselessness statistics and statements in support of tenants’ rights as the attendees ate lunch.
Washington CAN member Joelle Craft took the microphone at the rally after she was escorted out of the conference by security guards. A Seattle native, Craft said during the rally that she is now homeless because her multiple sclerosis has left her jobless and she can’t afford an apartment on her disability payments.
“I’m not asking for the moon. I’m not asking for a fricking condo in Queen Anne. I’ll take a studio apartment in Burien; I don’t care. I want to live in my city,” Craft said as another protester shouted: “Preach!”
Seattle’s rent is climbing nearly three times faster than the national average, according to August data from Zillow. Washington CAN noted that this increase disproportionately impacts women, people of color, and those with disabilities.
And the need for affordable housing for seniors like John is expected to increase in Seattle and surrounding areas in the upcoming years. King County’s senior population is projected to grow by 150,000 within the next 14 years, according to a 2016 King County housing report.
Rising rent has already caused John to move eight times in the 35 years that she’s lived in Seattle. But this time she doesn’t want to leave. “It makes me feel discounted and angry,” she noted. John has built a community in Beacon Hill and she enjoys regularly visiting the area’s gardens. Her one-floor apartment is convenient because her neurological disability could leave her incapable of traversing steps at any time.
Desperate for a solution after learning that her home would be demolished, John contacted some friends at environmental justice organization Got Green. After hearing John’s story, the group created the #DontDisplaceDove movement this summer. The movement’s aim is to interrupt the development process and call attention to the rampant displacement of low-income people and communities of color. “People who have been organic to their neighborhoods are being thrown out in favor of this runaway development,” John told Seattle Weekly before the rally.
One of #Don’tDisplaceDove’s first acts was to go door to door with a petition urging the city to hold a public hearing about the proposed development in John’s neighborhood. During the October hearing, about 200 people testified that they didn’t want such a large project in their area. John’s building is across the street from the Beacon Hill International Elementary School, and “it doesn’t make any sense to have single people living across the street from that school,” John said.
Although some friends have offered to let her stay with them, John said she often walks past homeless encampments and thinks, “You know, that could be me.”
Towards the end of the rally, John sauntered up to the microphone underneath a large banner that read: “Don’t lock us out/Tenant rights/ Protect families.” She shared some of the movement’s principles, which include that John and the other residents in her building should not be displaced. They also ask that developers ensure that 25 percent of the units in the new building be affordable, and that some of the apartments accommodate families.
After she spoke, the emcee asked the crowd: “Do we want Ms. Little Dove to stay on Beacon Hill?” In unison, the about 60 tenant advocates responded: “Yes!”
Throughout the demonstration, some attendees banged on trashcan drums as others broke out in chants. “Ain’t no power like the power of the tenants,” they shouted, “because the power of the tenants don’t stop!”
Then Councilmember Sawant spoke, mentioning the economic eviction assistance legislation that she plans on introducing within the next year.
“The moment that we are building will create a legacy of housing justice not just to solve the crisis that we face immediately, but for all of the regular working class renters that will come after us,” Sawant said. Now that Democrats have control of the State Legislature, she urged politicians in Olympia to lift the ban on rent control.
That is when Macri took the stage and stated that rent stabilization is past due. “When state workers came to me and said, ‘My rent has gone up $600 a month in the last two years. What are you doing about that?’ I knew it was time to sponsor a bill to repeal the ban on rent control and regulation in this state,” she said, admitting that it would not be an easy fight since landlords have strong sway in Olympia.
Macri told Seattle Weekly on Wednesday that she is currently working on the legislation, but she’s not planning on modeling it after another city’s rent control bill. Her intent is to lift the ban on rent regulation so cities and towns can create their own methods of addressing the affordable housing crisis.
“It’s not to prescribe a specific approach on how to stabilize rent. It’s really to return local control to our cities and to maximize the flexibility that they have to respond to an acute crisis that’s really destabilizing our communities,” Macri told Seattle Weekly. “I think that given the mounting crisis of housing affordability that’s touching not only Seattle, but every corner of the state of Washington, that we need to give our local communities all the tools we can to help them address the impacts that this affordability crisis is having,” she added.
The rally concluded with all of the tenant advocates and politicians huddling under the banner for a group picture. The group broke out in a chant as they raised their fists in the air. “What do we want? Rent control. When do we want it? Now!”