A WORLD FOR THE MANY: AN INTERVIEW WITH OLYMPIA CITY COUNCILMEMBER RENATA ROLLINS
Just over sixty miles south of Seattle sits the small city of Olympia, Washington. Tucked into the southeastern corner of Bud Inlet, Olympia—the state’s capital—is well known for being a focal point in the Pacific Northwest for bohemian artists and leftwing activists. The Evergreen State College, a progressive liberal arts school, located just outside the city, has a history of attracting various nonconformists. Inevitably, these unorthodox approaches to fashion, music, and, of course, politics, find their way into Olympia’s civil society. This reading of Olympia, however, can also obscure the challenges that it, like most U.S. cities, faces: homelessness, housing inequality, and poverty.
Olympians’ response to these challenges can be seen in part through the 2017 election of Renata Rollins to position #6 of Olympia’s City Council. City councilmembers, who serve part-time and are modestly paid, have tended to be liberal but nevertheless comfortable homeowners who are mostly retirees, small business owners or other middle-class professionals with flexible schedules. Rollins is different. Prior to being elected to the city council, Rollins worked with the all-volunteer advocacy coalition of homeless people and housing activists, Just Housing. Unlike her colleagues, Rollins is a renter. On May 1st, just as the COVID19 crisis was unfolding, she refused to pay rent to her landlord to protest the United States’ indifference to renters during the crisis. In this interview, she explains her decision and how small cities like Olympia are dealing with the fallout from COVID19.
MRR: On May 1st you refused to pay rent to your landlord and wrote an open letter explaining your actions. Why did you decide to take this action?
RR: I had been thinking about it for about a month. I had been seeing calls for a rent strike and obviously seeing the broken system. I felt like I could see the writing on the wall. There is no relief coming for people in a real way in the United States like in other countries. There is no $2000-a-month stipend like they have in Canada or forgiveness for mortgages and rents like they have in Italy. I could just tell nothing like that was happening here. As someone who is an elected official at the local level and have been an activist for a long time—most of my life—I don’t see the channels for political change working for the times that we are in, if they ever did. I saw my actions as something of a flare. I don’t even necessarily think a rent strike is “the thing”—even if it was up to me—but I think it is important people step out of the normal patterns, It is not so much about what the act is that is important, but what might come from it.
MRR: How did people respond to your refusal to pay rent?
RR: The overwhelming number of people I am heard from were very negative. I have been contacted through my council address as well as just random people on Facebook. A lot of times it is just the three words: “pay your rent.” Some people are a little more nuanced. There has been concern about what kind of example I am setting. There has been concern about my landlord having bills to pay too. There has been concern about me driving a divide between landlord and tenants at a time when we all need to be united. There has been certainly some positive support, but not a lot of it is public. I don’t think a lot of people on the left or in social justice circles have necessarily heard about it. Once the story came out in our local news outlet King 5 and that got shared around, more people expressed private support.
MRR: Recently, your landlord accused you of “gam(ing) the system in a hypocritical pursuit of your own agenda.” Do you have a response to that statement?
RR: His whole letter tried to frame it as a selfish action, and I have seen that over and over again. People who take an action on behalf of a community or a class are often described in that way. I would say that to the degree that there is an agenda I have been very clear about it. I want people to not have to worry about paying their rent and mortgage during a once in a century pandemic. I don’t think there was anything shady about it. It was clearly a political action. His response I feel was more of an unstated agenda because he knows I filled out a tenant form to pay back the rent on a schedule like the way the moratorium in our state is drafted. He knows that he is not going to be out of money.
MRR: In your open letter, you mentioned hearing stories of landlords harassing tenants during the COVID19 crisis. In Olympia, what are tenants experiencing?
RR: In Washington State the governor has a moratorium on evictions related to anyone who has had a change of economic situation due to COVID19. You would think that would sound pretty straight forward, but people that have reached out to me directly as well as to the Washington Community Action Network [CAN]—their organizer here and I are in contact—with all kinds of stories. One person who contacted me directly, who I don’t know but we have mutual friends, was saying that the landlord was trying to get them to turn in paystubs and that sort of thing. Through Washington CAN I have heard of people being threatened with evictions or given misinformation by their landlords. There is a lot of not acting within the law. The state attorney’s office has gotten a heightened number of complaints regarding that type of intimidation.
MRR: In your letter you also discussed the need for a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. You are a tenant, so why do you also think a moratorium on mortgage payments is also necessary?
RR: I have heard of homeowners referred to as “bank tenants,” that is, the ones who don’t own their homes outright. I see it as necessary because I see the whole housing and land system as essentially extracting money up to the banks. I just think in this time, especially in this time more than ever, families and communities need their resources here. If anything, resources should be flowing downward. It seems like a pretty elegant solution, to keep more resources in the local community in a time when mutual aid networks are popping up. There is a lot of interest in local resiliency and I think it would make sense as a national policy to simply allow people to keep the resources that they have in order to promote that sort of local resilience.
MRR: What do you see happening on the state and national level to help renters and homeowners through this crisis?
RR: In the state there is a moratorium. It was put together with input from Washington CAN and other tenant organizations. The moratorium prevents evictions and further goes on to say that whenever the moratorium is lifted, any owed back rent will not become enforceable debt unless the tenant refuses an individualized reasonable repayment plan. Unfortunately, none of that is defined, but that is the state of things as far as we know right now. I haven’t seen any chatter on rent or mortgage forgiveness. We have twelve billionaires in Washington state so that is something that is entirely possible, but it remains to be seen if it is politically possible.
MRR: Olympia is most known as a college town, but the city also has a lot of families living in poverty. What are some actions being taken to address poverty in the city?
RR: Related to COVID we have put some dollars toward the Community Action Council. Community Action Councils exist all over the state, usually on a county or multi-county level. They are the people who previously handled the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] program and handle the housing and essential needs programs. They are kind of like a housing and basic needs organization. We also have the federal Community Development Block Grants, which other cities in our county don’t have. As far as people who are so poor as to be homeless, we have tried taking a public health approach. We are just trying to ensure access to the basics, bathrooms in particular, handwashing stations as well. We are working with the county to ensure that access is a reality.
MRR: Even before COVID, the Northwest was experiencing a severe housing crisis. The city of Seattle gets a lot of attention, but how are smaller cities like Olympia handling the state’s housing crisis?
RR: The observation has been that Seattle is the center of Washington state’s housing crisis and things have trickled out from there. So, people moving out of Seattle move into the rest of King County, but then people move out of King County and into Tacoma and Pierce County. Then people move out of Tacoma city and Pierce County into Olympia. It is this ripple effect of the crisis. While working in street outreach, my coworkers told me the best steppingstone for getting people off the street was to find a room to rent. At the time, you could go to Craigslist, go to the rooms section, set the max at $400, and be able to find some options for people. It was just a matter of navigating the system. In 2015, it started to tick up. In a few months it went from $400 to $500 and above. For people on social security, $400 might be doable, but $500? $550? $600? It’s not doable.
MRR: Prior to the COVID, what was Olympia doing to address the housing crisis?
RR: In the Land Use Committee, we have a proposed ordinance for stronger tenant protections, which would include Just Cause eviction protections. We passed the Home Fund, which was an ordinance that allows us to build new affordable units and a new homeless shelter. One of the pieces of legislation that was attempted was the “Missing Middle,” which allowed for infill development, things like cottages, triplexes, and ADUs [Accessory Dwelling Units]. That conversation was contentious in the community. A lot of our legislation was struck down by a court. We were sued by a citizens’ group. It was, of course. not an overt affordable housing package, but the reason why I supported it—and still support the concept to this day—is that the same laws that would prevent a luxury developer from making high-end triplexes also would prevent the housing authority from building affordable units. To me it was one of the rungs in a ladder to getting more housing and more affordable options for people, and we reached for it, we grabbed it, and then it fell out from under us.
MRR: Why do you think that issue was so contentious in Olympia?
RR: The language we heard was “neighborhood character.” People feared it would irrevocably change the character of neighborhoods with single-family housing. There were people opposed to it coming from two different places. There were kind of the more “progressive” white baby boomers who saw this as a give-away to luxury developers. That was the language that they communicated to us. Then, there were the people who were overtly classist who were saying that they don’t want to live next to renters, that renters would destroy their neighborhoods.
MRR: On that issue of classism toward renters, you are the only Olympia city council member who is not a homeowner. Approximately fifty percent of households in Olympia are renters. That is high for a city of its size [approximately 50,000-60,000]. Do you think being a renter has influenced how you see things on the council?
RR: It influences who I hear from. It is a fascinating statistic that Olympia is a majority-renter city now and I think that seems to be the future, but renters are not just a statistic to me. They are people who I interact with. I remember doorbelling in 2017 and one of the houses on West Side had someone who came to the door complaining about having to live near an apartment, and the renters, and the crime. He obviously didn’t know what my situation was, and I didn’t confront it in that moment. To me, I was just trying to take in information at the door, but it was an eyeopener that there are people who feel that way.
MRR: Prior to being elected to the city council, you worked with an organization called Just Housing. What was that organization about and what were some of its projects?
RR: It was an all-volunteer organization. One of my coworkers at Capital Recovery and I got it off the ground. We described it as an organization for the rights, safety and dignity of people living without housing. What I think made it stand apart from other projects-- certainly from the usual 501(C)3 nonprofit organizations—was that it was very centered on the voices of people living the experience of homelessness. The story I always like to tell is that we called it “Just Housing” because we wanted it to be an organization that advocated for affordable housing, but when we talked with people on the street they would say “that is a great idea, but what I really need right now is a place to go to the bathroom.” I realized that I can’t advocate for these big ideas if people’s basic needs are not being met. Our focus quickly became things like access to bathrooms, safe places to sleep, safe places to rest. We used the hashtag #legalizesurvival. What really got us noticed in the wider community were the bathroom protest at Heritage Park. They were sit-ins that lasted over the course of three different nights where five people got arrested to ensure that the park’s bathrooms stayed open. It did result in a Port-a-Potty being set next to those restrooms, so at least there was one Port-a-Potty that was open 24/7. The park was state property and the city didn’t want those types of protest on their own property. So, in response they agreed to open up a few extra bathrooms.
MRR: It was recently reported that because of the COIVD19 crisis, Olympia’s municipal government is going to have a budget shortfall of $10 million. How does the city plan on dealing with this shortfall?
RR: Initially we have had some staff take us up on the offer of early retirement. A lot of the staff are taking one extra day off a month. Our new city manager is putting together a potential revenue proposal for 2021. I don’t think there is an appetite for new taxes. The problem is that the taxes for a city are so regressive that I don’t see the public being interested in those solutions. It already felt like it was reaching a breaking point before COVID. There is certainly going to be some staff reductions. A freeze on hiring and freeze on training has been implemented.
MRR: You have often referenced the quote from Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Liberation Army, “We want a world where many worlds fit.” What does that quote mean to you?
RR: I see every single human being as a world onto themselves and that is why every life is sacred. We want a world where many of us fit, a world for the many, instead of a world that serves the interest of the few. In my understanding the tendency towards the privatization of wealth, the tendency towards the accumulation of wealth, that kind of hoarding that comes with—whatever we want to call it—capitalism or colonialism, that kind of hoarding just doesn’t leave room for the many. It pushes people out. Literally, in our community, it pushes people outside. So, we have to build something different together.
The transcript of this interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Renata Rollins is a social worker and housing rights activist who was elected to Position #6 of the Olympia City Council in Olympia, Washington in 2017.
Marco Rosaire Rossi is a former resident of Olympia, Washington and is currently a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago.