Late last month, Mayor Murray hosted a cheerleading session for the City’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda or HALA. It was a packed room filled with enthusiasm for implementing the 65 recommendations that emerged last July in response to Seattle’s housing crisis. Comments by Sara Maxana, a homeowner in NW Seattle, were a highlight. Referring to the rapidly escalating value of homes like hers and the resulting impacts on renters, Maxana said: “I don’t see why one class of people, homeowners, should be getting a windfall from the same phenomenon that is causing other people in Seattle to struggle,” she said. “I don’t think that’s okay.”
Before closing the meeting, Murray took a handful of questions from the crowd. “Guy in the Striped Shirt” asked an important question: “How will renters be engaged in discussions about HALA?”
The mayor responded very generally, saying that we need to engage everybody: owners and renters, young and old, etc. and etc. I would respond more directly. Renters must be engaged about HALA. After all, renters comprise nearly half of Seattle’s citizenry and it is renters who face getting priced out of neighborhoods by rising rents.
But engaging renters to address neighborhood issues isn’t easy. There’s a section in Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam’s treatise on the decline of civic engagement in post-war America, about how homeowners, due to their “rootedness,” tend to be more engaged in civic life than renters of similar age, income, and education. Putnam suggests that since renters are more likely to move out of a neighborhood, they are less likely to care about local decision-making. Renters also are less motivated by “exchange value interests”, ie protecting property values, so are less likely to engage in civic activities that may preserve or increase property values (Manturuk).
Generally, renters are less likely to show up for public meetings or participate in local churches and community clubs. But we know that renters do certainly care about their environment. They care deeply about how a neighborhood feels – is it safe, inclusive, clean? They care about its walkability – is it close to services, amenities and open space? And, of course, they care about its affordability.
We also know that residents living in the heart of Capitol Hill, 80 percent of whom are renters, are not apathetic or disaffected. The voter turnout from the 43rd legislative district was higher than most Seattle districts this past cycle (though that’s admittedly a low bar) and we re-elected the first socialist on the Seattle City Council in a hundred years– a second-term city councilmember who last Thursday sent out a blast email with a now-familiar tone:
“Seattle is a very wealthy city, and is experiencing an economic boom. But this is a boom that is primarily benefiting a small wealthy elite. Economic inequality has expanded, with the city’s middle class shrinking rapidly.”
This message decrying inequality should resonate with the renters living in Sawant’s district. According to the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, homeowner net worth ranges from 31 to 46 times that of renters, and that inequality is growing. Economics prodigy Matthew Rognlie made waves in 2015 by showing that “surging house prices are almost entirely responsible for [the] growing returns on capital” identified in Thomas Piketty’s best-selling Capital in the 21st Century as the source of the wealth gap in America.
At the meeting last month, a small group of angry Wallingford homeowners showed up with placards protesting the greed of developers and demanding time at the microphone to speak against the HALA agenda. Reminders that this wasn’t a public hearing didn’t deter them.
As Josh Feit points out in Publicola, it’s pretty rich for single family homeowners to protest getting shut out of a conversation. Since this nation’s founding, property owners and their rights have been at the center of politics and power. John Adams declared property rights “as sacred as the law of God,” and Hoover urged homeownership, believing that “if one had an equity stake in the country, they’d less likely fall under the spell of Communism.” As recently as the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, homeownership was touted akin to civic duty.
American housing policy has favored homeowners for some time (providing federal mortgage insurance, the mortgage interest tax deduction, and other benefits). The MacArthur Foundation recently reported that: “While roughly 35 percent of Americans rent and the other 65 percent own, the federal government spends approximately three times as much to support homeownership as it does to support renting.”
Even as governments continue to push homeownership, the social bias towards homeownership appears to be shifting. Three in five adults (61 percent) believe that “renters can be just as successful as homeowners in achieving the American Dream.” This shift correlates with a broader shift in opinion towards ownership in general. According to Janelle Nanos (and many others who have heralded the arrival of the sharing economy) at Boston Magazine:
A startling number of young people… have begun to question one of the central tenets of American culture: ownership. It’s a change that has arrived thanks to a confluence of developments. Times are tough. … Simultaneously, rapidly evolving technologies are enabling a new kind of connectedness and sharing, just as more of us than ever before are moving to urban areas. And more and more of us are at last awakening to the terrifying idea that our quintessentially American drive to own and consume more is bringing about dramatically harmful climate change. As a result, many of us are starting to rethink what it means to own something [emphasis added].
I suggest that it is time for renters, Capitol Hill’s majority population, to assume ownership for the health and livability of the neighborhood.
Besides voter turnout, there are hopeful signs of renter engagement on Capitol Hill. Top for me is the Capitol Hill Community Council under the leadership of President Zachary Pullin, a self-described YIMBY = “Yes in My Backyard,” and a committed board of mostly young renters. Their agenda is both progressive and action oriented. They hosted one of the first community meetings in the City about HALA, are leading on addressing homelessness in the neighborhood, improving walking, biking, and transit service, and starting important neighborhood conversations about criminal justice reform and services to address mental illness and substance abuse.
Capitol Hill Housing plans to build upon this foundation and create a solid base of renter leadership. Our 2016 renter initiative will invite more renters to assume leadership roles in defining and addressing the topics of greatest interest to renters. We will recruit and support “ambassadors” from buildings across the EcoDistrict and host a Renter Summit in September focused on the HALA agenda.
Recruitment for the renter initiative has begun, so if you’re looking for a way to own what’s happening in the neighborhood, here’s your chance. Email Alex Brennan at abrennan[at]capitolhillhousing[dot]org or call 206-204-3803.
Civic engagement takes time and investment. Not every renter will choose to make this commitment, but we hope that many will. Communities with a high level of civic engagement have fewer social problems, lower crime rates, and are more cohesive. And if the HALA agenda is to succeed in Capitol Hill, it will require renters getting involved.