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PERSPECTIVE: The role of real estate interests in the 22nd Legislative District race

There is an important political battle unfolding in Washington’s 22nd Legislative District race. On one side are the nascent revolutionary forces of bold progressivism. On the other side is the corporate establishment, protecting a status quo that puts maximizing investor and corporate profits over basic human rights like housing, medical care and a living wage.

Thurston County voters expressed their hopes for a fundamental reordering of the political and economic system when they chose Bernie Sanders in the primary. This legislative race offers two new faces who reflect the power of those hopes.

“We’re serious about our advocacy in Olympia, and anyone who sees the building will know that,” said Bill Riley, describing the larger presence of the Washington Realtors’ HQ in 2017. Photo by Paul Peck

Vying to represent the side of bold progressivism are two candidates, Mary Ellen Biggerstaff and Glenda Breiler. Both Breiler and Biggerstaff are running as Democrats on bold progressive platforms; each has pledged to take no money from corporate PACs. They both support tighter regulation of the housing market through rent control and scaling up investment in affordable housing.

Three candidates

Breiler brought her Master’s Degree in Social Work to the position of Director of the Longhouse at The Evergreen State College and has made environmental protection and education a cornerstone of her campaign. Breiler says she wants to attack “homelessness at its roots while reforming current social welfare practices around homelessness.” She will “fight to protect the rights of tenants and tackle rising rent conditions, while investing in sustainable housing strategies.”

Biggerstaff has a Master’s Degree in Public Health as well as advanced nursing degrees. The experience she gained in 15 years as a nurse practitioner in Thurston County shows up in her commitment to single- payer health care and an awareness that a healthy community depends on a safety net that goes beyond insurance. Mary Ellen also believes that everyone should have a home and puts forth policies she would support to help achieve this. These are, allowing rent control and improving tenant protections, Investing in social housing, and requiring developers to provide 25% of new development for truly affordable housing (inclusionary zoning).

On the other side, there is Jessica Bateman, with substantial corporate funding already in place. Bateman, an Olympia City Council member with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Evergreen, is also running as a Democrat. While all three candidates support reform of the state tax system, where they differ is in who is funding their campaigns and why.

According to PDC filings, in this and recent elections, Bateman has been supported by Puget Sound Energy, the Olympia Master Builders (local developer lobby group), the Washington Realtors Association, various local developers, corporate lobbyists and establishment Democrats like Denny Heck.

Why the Real Estate investor lobby is backing Jessica Bateman

Bateman has the backing of the real estate lobby, among the most powerful lobbies in the state, for good reason. As an Olympia City Council member, she has consistently voted to award tax breaks to builders of market-rate and luxury developments, along with impact fee subsidies.

She has also been a strong advocate for the “Missing Middle” program, which was sold as an “affordable housing” measure but includes zero housing affordability requirements. Instead, it allows new development in older Olympia neighborhoods, relaxing onsite parking requirements and eliminating certain environmental protections to promote construction of multifamily units on lots that would otherwise be too small. Investors prize these policies because they open existing neighborhoods to new opportunities for profitable rentals.

Restricting participation from the community

When a group of local community activists appealed the new “Missing Middle” ordinance to the Growth Management Board on the basis that it failed to adhere to the law, the ordinance was overturned. In response, Bateman and her fellow Council members doubled down. They didn’t revise the ordinance to meet the law, but turned to the state legislature to change the law. They were not disappointed.

The legislature enacted HB 1923, a sweeping statewide law mandating municipalities to pursue upzoning. Initially, HB 1923 included an important catalyst for affordable housing known as “inclusionary zoning.” Thus, 25% of new housing capacity directed by the act was required to be affordable. However, with each iteration of the bill, this requirement was watered down—until in the final version it was simply eliminated. The law, which was billed as a way to increase housing capacity and affordability, limited environmental protections and restricted the right of citizens to challenge upzone actions. There were zero affordability requirements.

Bateman, along with all but one of the other 6 Olympia Council members, takes the position that housing policy has to incentivize private developers by offering tax breaks, subsidies, upzones, and weakened development regulations. They claim that this will result in new investment—a diversity of new housing types, including more, smaller, multi unit dwellings. Advocates argue that as more high-end housing is built, affluent residents move into the newer units, freeing up older more affordable units for people lower on the income ladder: the “trickle-down” theory applied to housing. But developers don’t build affordable housing. They build “market rate” and luxury housing—the kind of housing that maximizes profit and drives up prices in the housing market overall.

The lavish hand of the real estate investor lobby

The underlying problem is the power of the real estate investor lobby. The National Association of Realtors, operating through state and local affiliates like the Washington Association of Realtors, is among the most powerful of the special interests working to influence government and housing policy..

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1998 and 2016, the National Association of Realtors was second only to the US Chamber of Commerce in total spending by any group from any industry, accounting for $1.3 billion in campaign donations and lobbying at the federal level.

In Washington State, in 2019, the Washington Realtors PAC (WRPAC) ranked third in spending among all PACs in the State. They spent over $1.5 million to influence local and state elections, with millions more spent on lobbying efforts. Not only do they give to local officials like Bateman, but also to Democrats and Republicans in the state house. This includes most of the House Democratic leadership— House Speaker Lauri Jenkins, Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, Democratc Caucus Chair Eric Pettigrew and Majority Whip Marcus Ricelli are among recipients. WRPAC also contributed to Environment and Energy Committee Chair Joe Fitzgibbon, where HB 1923 was first considered.

Real estate money pays for deregulation and incentives

With their pipeline of campaign cash and army of lobbyists, real estate interests have succeeded in getting our local and state governments to adopt measures that turn housing into a commodity to be traded by investors, driving up prices and driving out tenants. Our elected officials, flush with PAC dollars, embrace industry arguments that say deregulation, corporate subsidies and tax breaks will solve our housing woes—despite the fact that these same policies helped create the housing and homeless crisis in the first place.

According to a number of development experts and many housing advocacy groups, “trickle down” housing policies are themselves a major cause of the housing affordability and homelessness crisis. The new zoning creates incentives to tear down older, more affordable homes and duplexes and replace them with market rate and luxury complexes. Without robust provisions for affordable housing. Increasing density leads to gentrification and an overall loss of a loss of affordable homes.

Progressive solutions to securing the right to housing

The alternative to trickle-down housing policy is regulation of the housing market along with meaningful investment in public housing and housing co-ops. Effective and well established measures to achieve these goals include applying affordable housing impact fees to new development, inclusionary zoning, density (upzone) bonuses for affordable housing and ending tax breaks and subsidies for market rate development to free up needed revenues. Rent control, a head tax on large businesses (called AmazonTax in Seattle), and other regulatory and taxing mechanisms would generate needed revenue for social housing investments.

These measures are already at work in some places. Bellingham, Redmond and Paulsbo have all adopted a form of inclusionary zoning. Seattle recently adopted an affordable housing impact fee on new commercial development, along with inclusionary zoning. California and Oregon both passed statewide rent control bills.

Yet rather than pursue this more assertive regulatory and progressive taxation approach, our local and state governments, under the control of Democrats funded by corporate and investor interests, have signed on to the trickle down game plan: deregulating the housing market and subsidizing developers and the rich. It’s Repulican-style fiscal conservatism and deregulation policy hidden behind a well-crafted veneer of liberal incrementalism, with new programs like Olympia’s Home Fund invariably funded by regressive property and sales taxes.

Fighting to tackle the harms of inequality

If we want a county and state with responsible regulation of the rental market and adequate investment in social housing—where the right to housing is secured—we need to elect local and state representatives who have the courage and commitment to stand up to, and whose campaigns are not funded by the real estate lobby and the corporate establishment. In the 22nd Legislative District, we have two candidates who will not be accepting corporate money, and who promise to tackle inequality, work for real rent control and support deeply affordable housing for those who can’t wait for market-rate housing to “trickle down.”

This election offers us two candidates who advocate changes to the direction of housing policy. Check out their websites if you’re interested. To win, they need active support—contributors and volunteers.

Jeff Sowers is a high school math and science teacher and a Thurston County progressive activist currently servicing as chair of the 22nd Legislative District Democrats.

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