06/22/2015 12:20 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2016

Is It Time for a Housing Justice Movement?

Is Seattle Ground Zero for a housing justice movement -- or a housing injustice movement? As one of the most livable cities in America rapidly becomes livable only to those with six-figure incomes, this question is fast gaining ground. It hit home for me this spring when the building I live in was sold and my disabled neighbor, unable to find housing he could afford on his $660 monthly income, committed suicide. The new owners were unfazed by his death and more than tripled the rent of the remaining tenants. My own monthly rent was increased from $1975 to $6,100. What's wrong with this picture?

An unfortunate consequence of a rebounding economy has been the rapid influx of young, educated people, many in the tech industry, in search of high-paying jobs and affordable housing in vibrant urban areas. The most popular area for those in the long-unaffordable Silicon Valley to relocate to has become Seattle, Washington where housing costs have risen by a third in the last six years, in large part due to this influx of well-paid professionals. Consequently, Seattle has recently achieved the fastest rising housing costs in the nation.

In response to this housing crisis, a social movement for affordable housing is coming fast on the heels of the $15 an hour wage movement, a movement that was spearheaded by an outspoken, unapologetic socialist, Kshama Sawant, who was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2013. After her success at implementing the city's first $15 minimum wage, Sawant is now taking aim at housing affordability, where 40% of the city's residents are renters, in large part due to the skyrocketing costs of home ownership where even modest homes are approaching a million dollars.

"The way markets work under capitalism is that they cater to the highest bidder," Sawant, who holds a doctorate in economics, explains.

And if there's a critical mass that can afford higher rents, then the market is going to drive rents to that point. . . [Supply and demand] suggests that if there is demand for a lot of lower-priced housing, then the market will provide it. But we don't see that happening. The majority of people are looking for lower-priced housing, but the majority of people are getting priced out of this market in a very big way.

But it doesn't take a socialist to recognize that there's a problem. Philip Tavel is an attorney and Pro Tem Judge for King County's District Court who is running for City Council in Seattle. More conservative in his economic views than Sawant, Tavel similarly expresses alarm at what is happening to the city he loves, noting that the conversation is dominated by a sense that the free market economy is the sole criteria by which housing costs are determined.

You shouldn't be able to just hide behind economics. While I understand the free market, as a community maybe we need to put the brakes on it. Maybe you shouldn't [raise rents to the maximum] just because you can. Greed is our biggest problem. When we let greed dominate the conversation about housing it's just not good. . . Wouldn't it be nice if we lived in a community where people felt a responsibility to do something about people not having any place to go?

Yet go, they must, as long-term tenants are displaced when investors buy up "mom and pop" buildings and "modernize" them with a few quick and dirty upgrades, and high rise market-priced apartment complexes are built where houses or small apartment buildings once stood. Among the most common responses to this displacement is that existing tenants can move to less expensive parts of the city or to one of the distant suburbs. This "let them just leave" argument suggests that the solution to unaffordable housing is to push people out of the communities in which they may have lived for years or decades, into more remote and lower-income communities.

As this shift occurs, neighborhood instability becomes the norm as rising rents lead to frequent moves--a shift that favors the real estate investor who can raise rents with each new tenant. Yet for families, leaving a community can be devastating. Children commonly have to move to new schools, only to move again as rents again rise. Community support systems are lost, including access to places of worship, neighborhood groups and friendships. Elderly dislocated tenants are the hardest hit as lifelong friendships are lost just at the time many can no longer drive. Single income families, especially single parents, are discovering that no one will rent to them because their incomes are insufficient, even if they have professional jobs. In many cases, the only "affordable" housing options for single parents and the elderly are in areas with high crime rates, poor environmental quality and shoddy housing.

And for those lower-income neighborhoods which absorb the displaced, who are often middle-class, the increased demand for housing leads to higher rents and housing costs in these neighborhoods, thus gentrifying the neighborhoods once considered "undesirable" by the middle class. In other words, gentrification has a ripple effect, pushing the most marginalized out all together. And the further people move, the more likely their jobs remain in the city, leading to increasing traffic density, traffic jams and declining air quality.

But just as in many other cities, developers have long dominated the political landscape in Seattle, and have resisted all efforts to mitigate the human impact of their investments. While Seattle has passed a resolution to impose linkage fees charged to developers to fund affordable housing options, there remains fierce opposition, as many claim that no one will build in Seattle if such fees are imposed, a specious argument with no empirical evidence to support it.

"Whether or not there is a construction boom in this city is not a function of what the regulatory standards are," Sawant argues.

It's a function of whether the city is booming in general, whether there is economic vibrancy to it. They made similar arguments every time the minimum wage went up, as well, and there is absolutely no evidence to show that increasing the minimum wage negatively impacts economic vitality. Similarly, there is absolutely no evidence that regulation that enables working families to live in a given area will negatively impact construction and development. There is absolutely no evidence.

Given these concerns, Sawant and her colleague, Council Member Nick Licata, have introduced a bill to repeal the Washington state law banning rent control, and Sawant recently held a town hall meeting on housing costs that was so crowded hundreds of people were standing, packed along the walls and into the over-flow area. Articles on the alarming cost of housing appear daily in the local papers, and a rising chorus of voices in town hall and community meetings are increasingly challenging the power of developers to shape the future of the city, as a burgeoning housing justice movement emerges.

In addition to rent control or rent stabilization, other measures that are being discussed include easing the tenant-application process (which is expensive, overly selective and discriminatory), expanding tenant rights and having the city invest in building thousands of affordable housing units. But such policies will be costly, and developers may well end up bearing a large portion of the costs.

"We should be the city where it's most expensive to build because it is so desirable," Tavel argues, suggesting that just as tenants are expected to pay higher rents to live in the more desirable areas, so, too, should developers pay if they want to build in the city. Yet no matter how high such costs, the costs to developers will remain economic, while the costs to tenants are disrupted lives, lost social support systems, longer commutes and stress so great that it can lead to early death.

So the question arises, can the housing justice movement that is taking off in Seattle spread across the nation? Kshama Sawant thinks so, noting that it isn't only political activists who are getting involved, but ordinary people who never thought of themselves as activists.

It's not like the price of M&M's has gone up; if the prices of big-ticket items like housing go up, that means that the biggest check you're writing each month increases by a hundred percent, then that hits everything, it hits your ability to survive. It has a big impact on your living standards because if you're paying half or more than half of your paycheck towards rent, how much do you have left over for your other basic needs? So there will be huge anger around this. . . .I think that every effort that we can make for housing justice in Seattle will have a larger impact in inspiring housing justice struggles elsewhere, just like we saw the victory of the 15 dollar wage leading to victories elsewhere.

It's too late for my neighbor Bill, who was cremated last week and will have his ashes scattered at the home he lived in for a quarter of a decade. But let us hope that the lessons of Seattle inspire communities throughout the nation to put the brakes on greed and set limits to just how high this "free" market can price a basic human need.