The housing cliff in Washington state


On March 31, a coalition of housing activists, socialists, and community members (including myself) held a rally and a march to discuss Seattle’s and Washington state’s housing crisis. About 100 people were in attendance. The speakers discussed various aspects of the housing crisis, such as its disproportionate impact on BIPOC communities, immigrants, women and children, its origins in the racist housing market, and the sheer scope of the problem. The march went from City Hall to the nearby courthouse responsible for processing evictions.

Some gave personal stories of their own housing issues. One speaker, a small business owner, explained how he had fallen into more than $15,000 in housing debt as a result of the pandemic. One speaker—an elderly Black woman—explained how she was being harassed by her landlord, who even went so far as to try to hire goons to intimidate her out of her own house. Another speaker, again a Black woman, spoke about how she had been forced out of Seattle’s central district where she had grown up. In decades past, the central district was redlined as the Black neighborhood; now, people of color have are being rapidly economically evicted from the area to make way for luxury apartment developments.

This demonstration comes off the heels of several other events in Seattle—town halls, marches, rallies, etc. centered on housing issues. It’s no surprise to anyone living in the area why: with sky-high rents, stagnant wages, and an apparently permanent epidemic of people living in tents and cars, the housing crisis permeates almost everything in the city. Thanks to COVID, the crisis is set to become a catastrophe once the eviction moratorium ends and the affected renters fall off the “eviction cliff.” As many as a half-million people in Washington alone are facing potential eviction.

Hopes are high that these events inaugurate a new movement capable of delivering true housing justice, rather than piecemeal reforms that simply stem the onslaught. However, obviously, hope alone is not enough; we need a winning strategy if we are to win against the landlords and real estate speculators. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the movement’s opposition, as well as its strengths and weaknesses, and where to go from here.

The opposition

The landlord lobby is strong in Washington, stronger and better organized than in many other states. In 1981, the state legislature passed a ban on local rent-control measures, which has stymied attempts at housing reform for decades since. Many state legislators are themselves landlords; last year the Stranger reported that at least 19 of Washington’s legislators were commercial or residential landlords. Even the smallest attempts at progressive housing reform will be fiercely resisted.

Beyond this, Washington state has the most regressive tax code in the U.S. There are no state income taxes; instead, the state is funded through sales taxes, property taxes, and a myriad of other fees such as annual car tabs and tolls. The state constitution almost entirely forbids progressive taxation, stating, “all taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of property,” which in plain terms means that any income tax would have to be the same rate for everyone, whether you’re making $10,000 or $10 million. Corporations such as Amazon and Boeing are regularly given bailouts and sweetheart tax deals while average people are left with the choice of increasing taxes on their own meager income to pay for social services, or reducing their taxes to keep more of the income they do have.

In the rare cases when the movement manages to win, such as the Amazon tax last year, which brought in $200 million to build public housing, the ruling class tries everything to overturn the victory. The Democrats attempted to overturn and weaken the tax multiple times through preemption, sunset clauses, etc. but failed. The ruling class, including many members of Amazon’s “S-team” (senior corporate leadership), bankrolled the Democrat Egan Orion in opposition to the independent socialist councilmember Kshama Sawant, who led the charge for the housing tax. Although that effort failed, they are now bringing a recall campaign against Sawant on spurious charges based on her involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement.

None of this should lead us to despair; none of these obstacles are necessarily insurmountable. But they are significant, and it will take serious organizing and struggle to overcome them. As the saying goes, we must tell no lies and claim no easy victories.

What does a winning strategy look like?

To answer this question, let’s first look at what a winning strategy doesn’t look like. On March 17, Seattle DSA organized a town hall with “progressive” legislators to report on the state of housing legislation. It was attended by a group of over 100 activists and community members. The bills that were on offer from the legislature would have, in their original form, provided legal protection to the poorest renters, made evictions and displacement more difficult, and suspended economic evictions throughout this year. To be clear, these would not have included any debt cancellation, would not have addressed the root causes of the housing crisis, and would have had a relatively minor effect on the landlords’ profits. Yet even that was too much.

Despite having full control over all branches of the government in Washington state, the Democrats could not be bothered to pass even this. The most important provision—banning economic evictions—was removed by the Democrats before even getting out of committee. In fact, one of the legislators on the call even voted to remove the provision!

Despite the activists’ hard questions and clear anger over this, they were unable to fully and honestly criticize this blatant betrayal. This is because DSA (and the reformist left generally) holds illusions in the Democrats. Their strategy relies on differentiating between “good” Democrats and “corporate” Democrats, in order to identify and make friends with those supposedly sympathetic to our cause. Supposedly, the thinking goes, if we have friends in the legislature, we will have a better chance at winning reforms.

This pattern has been repeated at both the state and national scale so many times it is a cliché on the left to mention it. The Democrats’ betrayal should not be a surprise to anyone on the left anymore.

There are a few lessons that we can take from this and the repeated cycles of co-optation, broken promises, disappointment and disillusionment. First, there is no such thing as a “good” Democrat. All Democrats are corporate Democrats. Second, we must be totally politically independent from the Democrats. We cannot rely on them or any other bourgeois politicians to make the change that the working class desperately needs.

The victories that the housing movement has had are instructive. When Sawant and Socialist Alternative chose the name for their campaign, they made the deliberate choice to use the confrontational name “Tax Amazon,” against the “advice” of the Democrats in the city council. They chose to make their aims clear from the start, and to make it clear who their opposition was. They involved organized labor, community groups, and regular people in a democratic process to decide the direction of the campaign. Rather than staying within the cage of respectability politics, they relentlessly and openly criticized the shady and underhanded tactics of the Democrats when they stood in opposition to the movement.

Based on these experiences, we can conclude that a winning strategy has the following qualities: (1) political independence from bourgeois parties, politicians, and institutions; (2) open and democratic decision making, with honest and clear objectives from the start; (3) the ability to disrupt or politically threaten the status quo.

What’s it going to take this time?

The size and sophistication required to win depends on the movements’ demands. The more the demand cuts into profits and threatens the status quo, the larger the movement and the more theoretical clarity is required. Whenever the ruling class and its politicians weigh whether or not to grant a concession, they do so by estimating the potential disruption to their profits and political legitimacy that would be caused by refusing it. Therefore, in order to win, we must be able to sufficiently and convincingly threaten profits enough that the ruling class is forced to capitulate.

What follows is an attempt to visualize the size of a winning movement based on the tactics available to it, using the contemporary housing movement’s most central demand—to cancel accrued rental and mortgage debt—as the basis. This is not meant to prescribe any particular tactic, but rather to estimate the size of the gulf between the movement as it is today and a movement capable of winning.

According to a recent household pulse survey, 160,000 tenant households and 110,000 homeowner households were behind on their payments. A recent study by the Urban Institute estimates that renters in the U.S. paid an average of $1400 per month in the U.S. and were 3.8 months behind on average in rent. The data is less clear for homeowners, but a clear majority of those behind on their payments are at least 90 days delinquent or more, according to a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, so for our purposes using the same number is good enough to estimate. Therefore, we can assume that the demand is, roughly, to cancel about $1.5 billion of debt.

This demand is obviously very large, larger than previous demands: accordingly, it will require a movement much greater in scale and sophistication. But how large? To estimate, let’s assume a “strike” strategy wherein we convince a very large number of people to cease working for a week. To be clear, I am not advocating this strategy, but rather using it as a way to estimate the size of the movement required to win the demand. Last year, Washington’s GDP was $619 billion, and its officially employed population was 3,583,955 on average, according to the BLS. Assuming each worker produces roughly the same amount of value, this assumes roughly $473/worker/day in lost value to the state GDP. Assuming the strike will last a week, we would need about 454,000 workers to participate to equal the size of this demand.

Now, some caveats. Obviously, this analysis is quite simplistic, and should be taken with more than a few grains of salt. There are plenty of details that I’ve glossed over here that are worth consideration. But it is useful in illuminating one thing: we are not even close to where we need to be to win at this point. A couple hundred people at a rally here and there is not going to move any legislators on this question, no matter how militant they are.

How do we get there?

One urgent task at this point is to mobilize unions and union members, who represented 596,000 people in Washington state in 2020. Special attention should be given to the unions representing workers within the most affected industries, such as hospitality, dining, entertainment, and transportation.

Another urgent need is to mobilize working-class political organizations. There has been some progress on this front, with many socialist groups and housing activists already organizing demonstrations. What is missing is presence from organizations that represent people of color, immigrant, and Latinx communities—who have all been hit hard by the housing crisis.

The absence that is felt most of all is the involvement of average working-class renters and homeowners. A coordinated campaign to reach out to affected working-class people is desperately needed.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Public events can help bring attention to the cause and bring more people into the movement, but there is no substitute for patient organizing and outreach.

The landlords aren’t waiting around for the eviction moratorium to end. They’ve already proposed increased sweeps and police funding in Seattle, and are trying to prevent the governor from extending the statewide moratorium any further. If we want to win, we can’t wait around either.

The author is a supporter of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.

Photo: Celia Berk / South Seattle Emerald

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