By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
On Saturday, Oct. 19, Socialist Alternative Pittsburgh hosts Rock & Roll for Rent Control, a solidarity-raising dance party that also serves as a fundraiser for Kshama Sawant, a Seattle city council person who is running for re-election.
What does a City Council race on the other side of the country have to do with Pittsburghers concerned with rising housing costs? Plenty, says Socialist Alternative member James Graham, who calls this race “one of the most important in the country this year.”
In 2014, Sawant – a proud socialist – garnered national attention as a major force in pushing through the $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle, the first city in the country to do so.
“If elected,” Graham writes in an email, “she’ll push for rent control in Seattle in the same way she did for $15, by helping build a mass movement of ordinary people. Housing prices are rising rapidly all across the country, including right here in Pittsburgh where it’s increasingly difficult for ordinary people to make ends meet. A victory on rent control in a major city Seattle would set a critical national precedent, just like $15 did.”
Rent control can be enacted in a variety of ways, such as capping rents or making sure that they’re matched to inflation. In Seattle, Sawant proposed taxing Amazon, which is based in that city, to fund public housing, making for herself a very rich enemy. Just this week, Amazon donated $1.05 million to the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, which represents Seattle businesses, and opposes Sawant’s re-election.
“This is no ordinary City Council race in many ways, but nowhere is it starker than in the massive amount of money being spent by corporate PACs,” says Graham. “The numbers dwarf anything that is typical in any city large or small. … This is truly a race that is defined as Amazon vs. working people, and it poses the question of who controls our cities – Jeff Bezos and other billionaires, or us?”
As corporate landlords hold a bigger share of rental properties than ever, and as those properties are geared more and more to the wealthy, it’s unsurprising that rent control has some powerful opponents. In a Sept. 18, 2019 editorial that ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Noah Smith wrote that rent control could discourage new building projects, and worsen the housing crisis, one of the common argument against such legislation. But so far, he admitted, such laws in California and Oregon “don’t look restrictive enough to cause a collapse in construction, but it’s possible that other states may become overzealous and set limits that end up hurting local markets.”
“Empirical evidence shows that rent control does not hurt housing construction. In fact, the two can go hand-in-hand. Firstly, in the US rent controls don’t cover new construction anyway. But also, the housing market is more complicated than Econ 101 theory — overall market conditions and zoning have a far greater influence on construction. And whereas housing debates focus largely on private construction, there’s also the option of pairing rent control with massive public construction to turn housing shortages into surpluses by building public and social housing, at a far greater speed than the private market.”
As the Facebook event page for Rock & Roll for Rent Control puts it, rent control legislation “would be a win for working people facing skyrocketing housing costs throughout the country. In Pittsburgh over the last decade, we have seen the large-scale gentrification of neighborhoods like East Liberty, Lawrenceville, and Garfield, the destruction of public housing like Penn Plaza, and many long-time residents being displaced from the city. In some neighborhoods, such as the North Side, rent has increased by nearly 10% from last year alone! Rent control, while not the be-all-end-all solution to housing insecurity, would be an important step in the right direction.”
Sawant takes no money from corporate donors, and her campaign is funded completely by supporter donations, most of which are in the $10-30 range.
As for Saturday’s event, bring your own favorite record, or request your favorites, and get ready to dance. Drinks and snacks will be available for a small donation. There will be an opportunity to donate to Sawant’s campaign, but just showing up is an act of solidarity.
“We’re hoping to raise some money to be able to push back against Amazon’s millions, but we also want to get people connected to and involved in the movements we have going on locally,” says Graham. “As socialists, we’re active in a range of different struggles against all forms of exploitation and oppression. We believe in the power of mass movements and the ability of working and oppressed people to join together and win real victories.”