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Meet the Seattle Renters’ Commission: Cliff Cawthon

The Mayor and Seattle City Council recently announced the initial appointees selected to serve on the new Seattle Renters’ Commission. Created by Ordinance 125280 in March 2017, the 15-member commission will advise the City on priorities, policies, and strategies related to all issues concerning renters across the City of Seattle. It will also monitor and provide feedback on the enforcement and effectiveness of legislation related to renters and renter protections. All the appointments are subject to City Council confirmation.


Cliff CawthonCliff Cawthon

Cliff Cawthon is a local organizer and writer from Buffalo, NY, who currently lives in South Seattle’s Hillman City neighborhood with his partner, another prolific organizer. Cliff has been working in politics and been a part of social justice struggles for the last fifteen years. Since arriving in Seattle four years ago, he has worked alongside workers, community members, and underrepresented communities on workers’ rights campaigns and anti-displacement campaigns, some during intense election years. As a renter in Seattle who has faced slumlords and racial discrimination while trying to maintain housing, Cliff is passionate about housing justice. Currently he works as the Organizing Director for SAFE, a housing justice organization, and is the Vice Chair of the Tenants Union Board of Directors. He earned a M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science from the University of Manchester in England.


What inspired you to serve on the Seattle Renters’ Commission?

I believe that housing is a human right. We all have the right to a safe, healthy, and decent place to live. In my lived experience as a renter and a low-income Black resident of Seattle, I’ve seen many of the inequities and challenges under-represented people face in securing housing. I want to be a voice for those who are struggling to find shelter because of profit, overzealous development, and discrimination. I believe that we need to, not just have a voice, but shape policy in order to deliver what everyone in this city deserves: access to housing and the opportunity to live and thrive in this community.


How has your experience as a renter shaped your perspective of Seattle?

My experiences as a renter have taught me that we are both a city in crisis and a city with the opportunity to make it right. Here in Seattle, there are numerous obstacles to finding a decent place to live. My partner and I have experienced discriminatory hostility from landlords, willful violations of local and state housing law, and the depressing reality of being faced with a plethora of unaffordable options that result in only a few being able to live in luxury housing – especially in historically redlined communities, like many neighborhoods in South Seattle and the Central District. As rents rise, I’ve seen more and more of my friends move into more precarious housing situations, making saving for buying a home or advancing themselves further out of reach. Missing a chance to make Seattle a city for renters carries dire consequences for me, my partner, and our community.


What do you hope the Seattle Renters’ Commission will bring to the City?

From my work as the Organizing Director for Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction and as the Vice Chair of the Tenants Union of WA Board of Directors, I have seen the Seattle Renters’ Commission take shape in order to give renters a voice and I believe it can do just that.

I believe the Renters’ Commission can deliver recommendations that address HALA’s problematic gaps when it comes to ensuring that we can build and price enough affordable units to our current and future residents here in Seattle. Also, I believe that we can deliver systemic policy recommendations that will further eliminate barriers to tenants securing decent housing, from all backgrounds.

Moreover, I aspire to be able to comprehensively address housing discrimination and homelessness here in this city – to reduce homelessness and housing discrimination to zero.


What neighborhood do you live in and what do you love most about it?

I am proud to live in Hillman City. I have always wanted to live in the most diverse zip-code in the country and what I love most about it is not just the “diversity,” as many call it, but the neighbors’ commitment to social justice and building a beloved community.