The Fight to Suspend Rent Payments in Seattle

In December, council member Kshama Sawant introduced a winter ban on evictions in Seattle and won. Then the coronavirus happened.

People exercise social distancing at a park in West Seattle on March 20, 2020 in Seattle, Washington.
Seattle was the first U.S. city to ban winter evictions for low-income residents. As unemployment numbers skyrocket, will it now suspend rent and utility payments? Karen Ducey/Getty Images

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In Seattle, one of the earliest epicenters of the coronavirus in the U.S., where businesses were ordered shuttered in mid-March, council member Kshama Sawant has been calling for a moratorium on utility, mortgage, and rent payments during the health and economic crisis.

For nearly a week, Sawant has been circulating a petition urging Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to issue an executive order before thousands of residents must pay up on April 1. The petition also calls for a statewide rent freeze through the end of 2020, meaning landlords couldn’t raise rents until January 2021 at the earliest.

“This is the least you can do for working people, while big banks and corporations get bailed out by the Trump administration. I urge you to take these proactive steps now to protect renters in Washington state from being priced out of their homes in this crisis,” the petition reads.

As of Monday, Sawant said more than 6,200 people have signed the petition. She hasn’t heard from Inslee.

Sawant’s fight for rent and mortgage relief predates the coronavirus crisis. In December, Sawant, who in 2013 became the first socialist to serve on the Seattle City Council in 97 years, introduced a proposal that would ban residential evictions during the colder months of the year. Seattle adopted the legislation in February, albeit with several amendments that Sawant opposed, including shortening the ban from five months to three. Still, the bill was the first of its kind in the U.S., inspired by similar legislation in France.

A month ago, Sawant’s activism looked revolutionary. Today, it looks essential. I spoke to Sawant on the phone this past weekend. We discussed her fight on behalf of renters in Seattle and in her state, the history of developers taking advantage of the working class in a crisis, and why organizing, even at a distance, is so important. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Joel Anderson: First off, are you OK? How are you navigating this new surreal world that we’re living in right now?

Kshama Sawant: I mean, my family and I are OK right now. But we consider it our moral and political duty to do everything in our power, to use our position, our public position, our City Council position to not only fight for the rights of working people at this time, but also to really help organize working people, renters, all those marginalized who are not only going to face the brunt of the pandemic itself in terms of the health impact it will have, the loss of life that’s going to be inevitable, but also the fact that it’s not just a pandemic, it’s a pandemic in the context of global capitalism, meaning all the burden will be shifted on the shoulders of the working class.

In the normal conditions under capitalism, you see the bosses, the billionaire class, the landlords, absolutely parasitically exploiting working people and renters. If you remember what happened with Hurricane Katrina, not only did the black and working-class community in Louisiana suffer from the hurricane itself, the hurricane was used as … completely cynically and shamelessly as an opportunity by the capitalist gurus to remake Louisiana in their vision, meaning taking advantage of the collapse of the public school system under the hurricane to ram through charterization and privatization of the public school system. The housing that the black and working-class community lost never came back because it was completely taken over by for-profit developers.

You guys were one of the first cities to be hit hard by the coronavirus, and that everybody paid attention to. Do you still think that the peak is ahead of you?

Oh yeah, and it’s not my opinion. This is what the health care professionals and epidemiologists and additional scientists are indicating.

And in the middle of all this, you have the Department of Labor reporting [on Thursday] that just in the last week over 3 million Americans have been laid off. And out of those 3 million, over 133,000 are in the state of Washington, and that number of 133,000 is 14 times the normal unemployment rate. As an economist, I know that is automatically an underestimate, because many part-time and contract workers, gig economy workers, self-employed workers, none of them qualify for unemployment. So the actual number of people who have been hit hard with basically zero income coming next month is higher than 133,000. So imagine the number of people who are not going to be able to pay their rent or mortgage next month.

I’m glad you got to that because, at the moment, you’re circulating a petition to suspend rent, mortgage, and utility payments and also for a statewide rent freeze for the rest of the year. Can you tell me where you got that idea from?

We have won significant victories for renter’s rights over the last years. As soon as the coronavirus crisis began in the U.S., we saw that it was already starting to unfold in Seattle, and we immediately put out a call through a petition. Now it seems like an age ago, it was just a few weeks ago actually. Are you feeling that way too?

This was a month of a week, pretty much.

Yes, exactly, exactly. So anyway, that was the first petition we launched, one of the first petitions we launched, which was to go for a residential and small-business eviction moratorium and also foreclosure moratorium and mandating landlords and mortgage holders to work on coming up with reasonable payment plans. So we won most of those demands almost immediately because there was such a phenomenal public response to our petition. In around a day or two, we had like 8,600 signatures on the petition, which is virtually unheard of, it was phenomenal. And so that pressure—that’s an example of how even when you’re restricted in the days of social distancing to social media and online organizing, organizing is still the key.

It was clear to us right after we won that victory on the eviction moratorium and the foreclosure moratorium that, wait a second, the rents themselves cannot be paid. So it’s not even a question of halting the evictions. People will not have money to pay rent. And that is why we launched a petition demanding that Gov. Inslee suspend all rent, mortgage, and utility payments and also as you said a rent freeze for 2020. This is the least we can do for the masses that are suffering.

What do you think is going to happen on April 1? I mean, especially since you haven’t heard back from Gov. Inslee.

Well, I hope that something will change between now and April 1. And like I said, we are going to be tireless, absolutely tireless and relentless in our efforts at organizing. But short of that, I expect that there will be many households that will not be able to pay their rent on April 1 or April 5 or whenever it is they’re due to pay rent and that’s going to be inevitable.

Even if there was a situation hypothetically where most people will be able to weather the storm on April 1, what are they going to do in May? Because the economic projections are so bad—and these are not, like, my Marxist projections. This is the Federal Reserve saying that in the second quarter of this year, that their estimate of unemployment is 30 percent. That is depression-level employment. So we are heading into some really, really difficult times of the like that most of us haven’t experienced before.

I wanted to go back for a second to December when you first introduced the proposal to ban evictions during winter months. What was the scale of the problem in Seattle that made you look for something like that?

When I was first elected in 2013, one of the things we had promised to do was to start building policies that would make up a full-fledged tenants bill of rights. But the simple reason why we [did it] is because of the scale of the housing affordability and homelessness crisis in, not just in Seattle, but in the entire King County region. And really at this moment there is a huge crisis throughout Washington state.

The fact that so many renters are economically rent burdened, meaning you’re paying anywhere from 50 to even 70 percent of your income in rent, it’s completely unsustainable. And so that’s where we started the coalition organizations and the Seattle women’s commission, which carried out this study called “Losing Home,” and we found out that evictions are rampant and they’re affecting the most vulnerable. And so the winter evictions was part of that effort. We are far from done, in reality. What we’ve been fighting for is much bigger than that, which is citywide rent control policies, free of corporate loopholes, which is going to take a massive movement and even civil disobedience.

I’ve seen and read where the landlords and even the mayor argued that the focus should be put on rental assistance programs being more robust rather than adding these restrictions on landlords, and landlords saying they’re worried about the economic impact on them. What did you say to them when they said, “Well, this is going to cause economic problems for us because we have our own bills to pay”?

We simply didn’t take that at face value. A landlord says, “Well, I don’t exploit my tenant.” And then you say, “Well, if you’re not exploiting your tenants, then you should give tenants a few days to pay.” Because—and this is another important fact—we learned through that survey that the most common scenario in which the household families were being evicted was for being a few dollars short of rent.

That’s why movements have to arm ourselves with statistical evidence and not allow the establishment to hoodwink you with lies. Because the fact is that if you are not an exploitive landlord, and you’re not punitive, then why won’t you give your tenant a few days to scrounge together the full rent so that they are not evicted? And the reason you want to do that [is] because you want the next time you have a new tenant, you’re going to jack up the rent for them.

So what’s next? I know that you haven’t made a lot of friends at Amazon …

Yeah, even [though] there’s a lot of Amazon workers who are my friends actually.

Right, to that point: I read that you’re thinking of an Amazon big business tax to fund coronavirus relief. Is that something that might be another petition proposal down the line?

Yes, we are actually now working on that Amazon and big business legislation. We are going to be fighting for $500 million of taxes on big corporations. And mathematically speaking, the scale of the economic crisis, as I said, is probably going to be closer to a depression than even just a deep recession. And so we don’t imagine that $500 million is going to cut it for what people’s needs are going to be.

But what it will be, and this is the most important thing, is a concrete battle between working people and big businesses like Amazon. And if we can win that battle, if we can win that tax, I’m telling you it will be a historic victory. We have the double challenge of organizing without being able to meet in a room, without being able to have rallies. So I don’t have immediate answers to how we’ll do it, but we are absolutely going to be fighting for it.