Michelle Dillon couldn’t move out.
The 32-year-old southern Seattle resident first started looking for a new apartment when her landlord raised the rent in 2015. It began with a $50 hike and kept climbing. By December 2016, the cost of her modest dwelling had ballooned from from $1,360 to $1,650 a month, a sum she split with her roommate.
“I was making about $1,200 a month,” says Dillon, who worked for a nonprofit in the city at the time. “After I paid rent and all my bills, I had about $200 left over for groceries.” This wasn’t sustainable.
But as her search for a cheaper apartment commenced, Dillon quickly realized that the cost of moving into a new place was prohibitive. Landlords around Seattle regularly required new tenants to pay an up-front sum that included first and last month’s rent, a hefty security deposit, as well as a whole slate of “administrative” fees. In a city where rents are already astronomically high, Dillon discovered that these “move-in fees” would cost her at least $2000, and often twice that, simply to switch apartments. She couldn’t swing it. So she stayed put and kept getting squeezed.
“The landlords know exactly what they are doing,” she says, describing a dystopian Seattle housing market where state law prohibits rent control and where there aren’t enough affordable units to go around. “They know how hard it is for renters to find a new place. They know how hard they can push. It gives them power to raise rents.”
But rental-property owners may have finally pushed too far too fast. After years of jacking prices higher and higher—rents in Seattle have jumped 57 percent in the last six years—landlords are facing a revolt from a young and vibrant tenants’ rights movement in the city. Like similar efforts burbling up in San Francisco, New York, and other rent-burdened towns, Seattle’s tenants’ movement is building power in the streets and translating it into progressive action at City Hall. They are organizing to protect poor and working-class residents, fight fees, combat discrimination, and ultimately enshrine a comprehensive tenants’ bill of rights in the city. And they are doing so, in a number of instances, by pushing policies that have not been tried before.
“There has been a sea change, and the renter’s voice has been able to penetrate through the halls of government here in Seattle,” says Kshama Sawant, a socialist activist who sits on City Council. “It has succeeded in completely changing the political conversation.”