Do Small Businesses Also Need a Renters’ Commission?

The City Council Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods, and Finance Committee voted yesterday to move legislation to create the nation’s first Renters’ Commission. The legislation will go to the full City Council for consideration on Monday, March 20th.

During Committee discussion, members expressed excitement for the new Renters’ Commission and discussed another group that might similarly benefit from direct engagement with City Hall. CM Johnson pointed out that, like households that rent, commercial tenants face a high risk of displacement by rising costs.

CM Herbold suggested revitalizing the Economic Development Commission (EDC), which was decommissioned about nine months ago, to represent the interests of small businesses operating out of rented space. This would represent a major shift from the past incarnation of the EDC, whose former roster was dominated by multinationals, venture capitalists, big institutions and property interests, including Amazon, the Port of Seattle, 360° Hotel Group, the University of Washington and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

According to former EDC member and Columbia City developer Rob Mohn, the EDC focused on how to keep Seattle economically competitive by addressing broad issues like quality of life, education attainment, work readiness, and the built environment. His focus was on the City planning process and believes EDC findings and recommendations informed last year’s restructuring of Seattle’s planning office into its current two departments.

When asked if the EDC addressed issues of commercial affordability for small businesses, Mohn responded, “No, not at all. That wasn’t on our radar.”

Mohn, who serves on the board of the Columbia City Business Improvement Area and participates in the Columbia City Business Association, wonders how the City can help struggling businesses short of providing subsidies to help with rent.

Last year, Mayor Murray empaneled a Commercial Affordability Advisory Committee to address this very question. Following the Committee’s September 2016 recommendations, the Mayor delivered his Commercial Affordability Action Plan, which involves earmarking Community Development Block Grant dollars for technical assistance, tenant improvements to commercial spaces, and microbusiness loans. The Mayor didn’t establish a means for small business renters to provide ongoing consultation to the City on their emerging issues.

It’s not entirely clear why the Mayor disbanded the EDC. Re-organizing it to address the needs of commercial renters is an idea worth exploring. Healthy small businesses, as well as nonprofit organizations who tend to rent commercial space, are an essential part of what makes neighborhoods like Capitol Hill livable.