Can Seattle’s Renters Put Judy Nicastro in the Hot seat?

Judy Nicastro is running for City Council. Ronald Reagan made her do it.

It was 1980, and Nicastro was 14. Reagan had just been elected President of these United States. Nicastro’s father had died two years before, and the family received widow’s benefits. In 1981, Reagan put widow’s benefits on the chopping block.

The money didn’t amount to much, but it was important to the well-being of Nicastro’s family. Nicastro’s mother worked two jobs, and, Nicastro says, “No one was sitting at home eating bonbons.”

“My mother said to me: At the end of those bills are people’s lives.” Nicastro’s mother called her congressman every night. “She begged him not to take money away from her children.”

Nicastro’s mother did not prevail with her congressman or the other members of the New Jersey delegation, including then-Senator Bill Bradley; Congress complied with the Reagan mandate and voted to cut widow’s benefits from the budget.

“They took money away from us. I realized then the power of politics. It matters.”

Nicastro moved here 11 years ago from Bergen County, New Jersey. She works for Boeing. She buys parts for 767 airplanes. She has a law degree. She rents.

That last fact is significant because rent reform is the political center of Nicastro’s campaign for a city council seat. She garnered substantial press attention earlier this year when her rent control advocacy group, Local Housing Needs Local Laws, sponsored a forum at Seattle Central Community College. The forum so incensed libertarian pundit Michelle Malkin of the Seattle Times that she lobbed a letter bomb in the direction of Lenin, hoping to fell Nicastro and odious talk of rent control in one pitch. Malkin missed.

“Every single person I talked to in the housing committee told me not to touch rent control,” recalls Nicastro. “Don’t touch it, they said. You’re crazy to touch it. I thought no, no. If rent control is actually considered extreme and loony, is this a city I want to be in?

“This is about fairness,” says Nicastro.

When Nicastro talks about fairness, uppermost in her mind is the story of John Mark, a member of Local Housing Needs Local Laws. “John Mark,” says Nicastro, “lives on a fixed income. His rent went up 25%. Social Security didn’t.

“He hasn’t been hoarding money. He doesn’t make enough to hoard money. He asked for a lease. His landlord said no. And I think that stinks.”

Nicastro’s outrage is coupled with a pragmatic approach to housing policy. In her view, stable housing prices are crucial to the retention of a stable and diverse workforce, necessary components of a successful economy.

Yet state law restricts rent control. In fact, rent control is described in such broad terms that the right to renew a lease is interpreted as a rent control measure. Nicastro believes this impairs the city’s ability to provide a range of housing options.

Nicastro argues for repeal of the law. “Let’s have a comprehensive dialogue about housing, about tenants, about renters in particular. 52% of Seattle rents. We cannot ignore renters.”

“We need access to all the laws regarding rent control. And right now we don’t have that.”

“I don’t know whether or not rent control and overall rent regulation would work for Seattle. But I think we have a right to have that discussion. I think that it’s a healthy discussion to have within a community.”

“Everyone is entitled to a certain amount of economic stability. And that requires pro-tenant regulations. At a minimum, the law should be repealed, and a tenant in good standing should have the right to renew a lease. That is just smart.”

Nicastro believes Seattle’s rent increases are undermining the planning efforts of Seattle’s neighborhoods.

“A transient population does not lead to a stable community. Or a safe community. You want people to invest in their home and their community. In order to get that investment, you have to make available to them a certain amount of stability.”

“We need to discuss what would work best for this community. We can look at the D.C. or Jersey models. Those models are not a windfall for tenants. 10 percent increases annually, that’s pretty high. Your income certainly doesn’t increase by 10 percent annually. My god, the governor is proposing a 2-1/2 percent, 3 percent increase for state employees.”

And rent control is not synonymous with New York City, a distinction missed by many of Nicastro’s critics.

“Nobody rational would put in the New York City model of rent control that came in after World War Two. That’s the stuff opponents of rent control tout as so devastating. And it was.”

Nicastro aligns herself with housing supply-siders like Paul Schell; she believes Seattle can and should increase the housing supply. Neighborhood planning has already identified the areas willing to absorb more housing, and she’s ready to work with those communities.

“Growth doesn’t have to be awful. There’s a big difference between a six-plex and 40 units. Let’s do comprehensive urban planning.” She points out that Seattle has a fair amount of decrepit houses and apartment buildings. “Let’s work with those owners and develop six-plexes.”

For Nicastro, one question dogs her thinking: What kind of city is Seattle ready to become? And it’s clear she wants a hand in shaping that future.

“Are we going to leave behind working-class people, such as myself, and young professionals, or are we going to bring them along in a fair way, and keep this a city for everyone, or at least, make this a city for most people?”

“If this city thinks it can survive on a handful of rich people, then try it. Melinda Gates can only buy so many blouses.”
 

This article was originally published in The Seattle Press, 4/21-5/4 www.seattlepress.com

(See how Nicastro did, in Shelterforce #s 108 and 111.)

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