A Tenant Uprising Has Been Unfolding at the Quinault Apartments on Capitol Hill— Complete with Drug Allegations, a Strange Man Sleeping in the Basement, Freaked Out Residents, and One Very Controversial Building Manager
It is difficult to say exactly when the problems began, or why. But those who have been sounding the alarm believe that all the trouble emanates from one location: a fourth-floor apartment overlooking a park called Tashkent.
The park sits near the quiet intersection of Boylston Avenue East and East Mercer Street on Capitol Hill, and it is named, in a high-minded internationalist gesture, after the capital of Uzbekistan, which in 1973 became Seattle's sister city in Central Asia. Tashkent Park's aim is global peace and understanding. It has become, however, a local source of consternation, a rundown hub of illegal drug activity where the "Bird of Happiness" statue, a gift from the people of Uzbekistan, now has lighters stashed beneath its wings.
The woman who lives in the apartment overlooking the park arrived last summer, and she greeted the other tenants at the Quinault Apartments with promises of great improvements to a building residents say was doing just fine. "Hello to you all," she wrote. "This letter is to introduce myself, Connie Hartman, the on-site manager. I just have a few things to let you all know about some of the wonderful things that will be happening here on the property..." Hartman pledged "deep cleaning" and professional window washing. Whether her promises actually materialized is disputed, but that dispute is minor compared to the emotional debate that has erupted between Hartman and a considerable number of Quinault tenants over just how far beneath "wonderful" the building has fallen under her watch.
The tenants accuse Hartman of giving drug addicts and dealers the run of the building, a charge Hartman vehemently denies—although she admits to having recently dated a homeless crystal-meth user whom she brought to the Quinault on occasion, and also admits that there was a homeless man living for a time in an unsecured storage room in the building's basement, directly across from the tenants' laundry room. (Whether this was the same homeless man she had been dating or another homeless man remains unclear.) As for the widespread concern among tenants that shady characters have been entering the building and heading up to the manager's apartment, Hartman said the worries resulted from misunderstandings and the fact that "most of my friends are in AA."
The Quinault is a 1925 blond-brick structure and it has about it the aspect of a medieval castle. White stone columns shaped like twin turrets bracket the entryway. Lantern-like lights are anchored into the white stone, and they cast an amber glow at night—when they are working. The top of the building's exterior is crenelated in parts, like the battlements of a castle. But the building's coherence ends at the front steps. Inside, a thick orange-and-red carpet with a loud 1970s geometric pattern spreads out beneath several Aztec-style archways, which lead toward apartments with hardwood floors, high ceilings, and metal radiators. The place is a castle, a pueblo, a casino, and old-world charm incarnate, all across from a park named after Uzbekistan's capital city, and if this were not a dizzying enough set of references, the building's name pushes in yet another direction. The Quinault are a Native American people who once roamed Western Washington and whose descendents now inhabit a reservation near Aberdeen.
On July 2, one of the Quinault Apartments' current residents watched as an emaciated man walked up to the building's call box, rang the building manager's apartment, and announced, "Hey, I just got out of jail." The man was immediately buzzed up, the tenant said, and a short time later he came back downstairs and headed across the street to Tashkent Park. There, the tenant said, the man handed two other people something from his pocket before they stumbled off. The story is typical of accounts provided to The Stranger by eight current Quinault residents, who complained of building keys appearing in the hands of "tweakers," drug dealers yelling up to the manager's apartment about their wares, used syringes turning up in the hallways, strangers trying to steal quarters out of the vending machine in the laundry room, tenants being offered meth on the building stoop, a back door frequently propped open, loud fights at night between Hartman and a male friend, and threatening and homophobic remarks being made by Hartman's associates to building residents. None of the tenants ever witnessed Hartman herself using or dealing drugs. But the tenants nevertheless described a loss of confidence in their building manager and an acute feeling of unease that has led to what one woman called a "tenants' uprising" and what another woman called a "fucked up" living environment in which she has had to add a chain lock to her door to feel safe.
All of the Quinault residents who spoke to The Stranger demanded anonymity due to concerns about retribution. Three residents of another Seattle building that Hartman used to manage, who all requested anonymity for the same reason, told The Stranger about a strikingly similar situation under Hartman's tenure there. Several other Quinault residents told The Stranger that they wanted to talk for this story, but were too scared or too financially insecure to get involved in a dispute they worried might jeopardize their living situations. The only tenant at the Quinault willing to be named in print was Karen Chromy, 22, a student at Cornish College of the Arts and a two-year resident of the building who said she was moving out because "I don't feel safe here anymore." She said she'd found a drug needle in the hallway and a building key stuck in the front door. Asked what the source of the problem was, she replied: "Have you seen our building manager?"
As the anxiety at the Quinault reached its apex last week, the daily newspapers were reporting the latest record-breaking spike in the value of houses and condominiums in the Puget Sound region. The convergence of events served as a reminder of just how low a priority renters have become in a city newly obsessed with its condo construction boom and the soaring price tags on its limited stock of single-family homes. Yet renters still make up 52 percent of Seattle residents, and for better or for worse, they are already living the dense urban future that Seattle politicians and developers are banking on. Without having to pay the $250,000 median price that Seattle condos hit last week (never mind the $435,000 median price the city's single-family homes hit) these renters have acquired all the cultural benefits, and all the claustrophobic anomie, that comes with closely packed urban living.
But they are in a precarious position, as evidenced by the feeling among most Quinault residents that they needed anonymity to criticize their own building manager. Without the power of home ownership, or a condominium association to appeal to or seize control of, renters are stuck, when things go bad, with whatever renters-rights laws they can access and understand, and with each other. "I know my neighbors now," said one Quinault resident who is part of a group of tenants who met in Tashkent Park on June 28 to brainstorm ways to restore a sense of security in the building. "It's really sad that this would be the thing that would bring us all together, but it has."
After the meeting, which was organized using notes slipped under apartment doors, tenants began calling the police more often. As a result, Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb said last week that authorities are well aware of the concerns about drug activity at the building. Officers have been called to the Quinault on numerous occasions recently and one of those officers, Whitcomb said, told Hartman to make the building more secure and remove unwanted strangers from the premises. The officer, Elizabeth Letalian of the East Precinct's community policing team, said that during her visit to the building, Hartman told her some building keys might have surreptitiously been copied by a recent guest in Hartman's apartment. Asked whether she believed Hartman's denials of illegal activity going on in her apartment, Letalian replied: "I'm not at liberty to discuss that at this point. It's an ongoing investigation."
Soon after Letalian's visit, the basement room where the homeless man was living was padlocked shut. Ten days later, the building's locks were changed. So far, officers have not observed any criminal activity, Whitcomb said, but there remains sufficient concern about the building that both narcotics officers and community police officers are keeping an eye on the Quinault.
"The building is on our radar," Whitcomb said. "And if there is any criminal activity that's going on there, we're confident that working with the tenants at the Quinault, we'll be able to interdict it and restore the sense of safety that the tenants have come to expect."
Michelle Morris, who supervises Hartman for R.P. Management, a company that is contracted by the Quinault's owners to maintain the building, said last week that she was "worried" about what she was hearing from police and tenants, but that she was certain the Quinault's problems were being corrected.
"Every property has issues," she said last Thursday. "Sometimes they get overdramatized, but measures are always taken as soon as we find out that something is amiss in the building, which is what we're doing with the Quinault." Morris said she had confidence in Hartman, whom she described as doing an "excellent job." She said R.P. Management does not employ drug users, and she also noted that Hartman is talented at cleaning buildings.
Morris said she didn't know how to explain the complaints from tenants, but suggested that rising rents in the building might be to blame: "Maybe tenants are ticked off because their rents are going up and they're trying to make a stink about it."
On Friday evening at the Quinault, as Hartman passed out new keys to residents—several of whom complained of having to wait hours to be let back in to the rekeyed building—she said over the phone that she was beside herself about the accusations. She offered to take a drug test to prove she is a not a user herself. She said she'd almost lost her job because of the complaints. And she threatened legal action to prevent the publication of this story.
"God knows that Connie has come in here and tried her hardest," Hartman said in a strained voice. "To be knocked down like this is uncalled for... I came in this building and it was black. I cleaned this building up. I will give you names of people who know what I did in this building, but I don't want to... Have you talked to the people that love me? I don't think you have. I could tell you who they are, but I'm not gonna... If I've got to get a court order against The Stranger I will."
Property managers have a unique and powerful role in the rental ecosystem. By law they are agents of the building's owner, required to meet all the duties an on-site owner would have to meet—duties that include keeping buildings safe and free of illegal drug activity. But in practice, they are often given wide latitude by building owners, who trust them to manage daily minutiae and report big problems up the ownership hierarchy. Combine this latitude and potential lack of scrutiny with the fact that building residents often don't know how to get in touch with a building's owner, and the power of the manager can be amplified from mere intermediary to unsupervised final arbiter.
It is easy to see how a person in such a role could abuse his or her position. It has certainly happened before. According to police spokesman Whitcomb, the last big meth bust in Seattle occurred on November 17 of last year and involved an assistant apartment manager in a building near REI who was running a meth lab on his building's roof.
Hartman, 44, has been managing buildings a long time and has no criminal record in King County. Responding to the accusations that she is colluding with drug users and dealers, she said: "I have been in this business for 14 years, and in those 14 years, if this was something I do, then this would have happened everywhere I went."
The length of time Hartman has been managing buildings makes it challenging to check on her past performance—over time, buildings change hands, or go condo, and owners and tenants move on and forget who their property managers once were. But it was not difficult to find tenants in Seattle who remember being managed by Hartman a few years ago. One of these tenants, when told about the accusations Hartman is now facing at the Quinault, responded: "That's not surprising."
The tenants of Hartman's former building spoke on the condition that they and their building not be named, but they painted a picture similar to the picture now being painted by the tenants at the Quinault: drug dealers and users being given the run of the building; a back door unsecured and propped open; and loud fights, sometimes violent, between Hartman and a male acquaintance.
Told of the complaints from her former tenants, Hartman said: "I never worked at any place where we had a back door." In fact, in an application for a restraining order that she filed while she was living in the building in question, Hartman complained that the man she wanted kept away from her was a violent drunk and wrote, "I can't go home to my apartment and I work as manager of the apartments I live in. I'm really scared." The apartment building she was writing about has an alley entrance that tenants use as a back door.
This previous building's back entryway leads up to the building's second floor, which Hartman's former tenants said frequently had a strong medicinal or chemical smell under Hartman's tenure. They believe the smell came from people making or using either meth or crack. These former tenants never saw Hartman using or selling illegal drugs. But like the Quinault residents, they spoke of a "trashed" laundry room, of having to repeatedly call the police about unsettling activity in the building, and of a revolving cast of "burnouts" living with Hartman in the manager's apartment. Asked if Hartman had been allowing or encouraging illegal behavior in the building, one former tenant said, "She wasn't stopping it."
As the former tenant was saying this, a person known as a neighborhood crackhead walked by outside the building. "For example," the tenant said, "if Connie was here, that lady would have the run of the building."
Close to the end of her tenure at this building, one of Hartman's former tenants found her bawling on the building's front stoop. As the former tenant recounted it, Hartman was saying: "They're trying to get rid of me. They're trying to fire me. They're accusing me of all these things..."
Hartman was at the building a total of about a year, and after she left, one of the tenants said, "this place cleaned up."
The Quinault is owned by a limited-liability corporation called Quinault Associates, whose members include Raymond Russo, a regent at Seattle University. Russo, who also owns a stake in R.P. Management, did not respond to attempts to reach him through his real-estate attorney, Christopher Benis. Morris, Hartman's supervisor at R.P., said the company checks the references of all its prospective building managers and that it was therefore safe to "presume" that Hartman's references had been checked before she landed her job at the Quinault.
"Why would we cause trouble for ourselves?" Morris asked. "What's the point? Why would we want a deadbeat in there? She does an excellent job, she really does."
Molly Rapozo, the building manager at the Quinault immediately before Hartman took over, had a different take on what R.P. Management is looking for in a property manager. "They don't like people who have options," Rapozo said.
Rapozo claimed that when R.P. Management pushed her out of her job at the Quinault, the company told her that they felt the building's units weren't being cleaned well enough between tenants. But Rapozo believes she was really pushed out because she was a student at Bastyr University preparing to work as a nutritionist, and therefore not in property management for the long-term.
Rapozo met Hartman during the transition. "I knew that it wasn't going to play out good," Rapozo said. "She just seemed so interested in getting my apartment. She didn't seem like she was interested in learning how to run the building... She said she'd been in the business 11 years, but she'd never worked anywhere more than a year. She said that people would just piss her off and she would leave." Rapozo added that Hartman "made it sound as if it wasn't amicable, the leaving."
Even with the building rekeyed, and the homeless man's makeshift sleeping quarters in the basement padlocked shut, the Quinault's tenants were having a hard time getting over what they say happened at the building in the last few weeks, as the atmosphere inside, in the words of one tenant, "went from zero to crazy intense." Horror stories are still being passed around.
There is the story of what was found in the homeless man's storage closet: razor blades, pill bottles, and rubber straps that could be used for shooting up. There is the story of Hartman standing at the building's entry late one night, crying and "ranting" into the front-door intercom system (which residents said worked only intermittently over the last few months), and then slamming the intercom's phone receiver into the intercom itself and yelling "I hate you" over and over before walking up to her apartment.
And then there are the "friend of the management" stories. One story recounts a tenant being locked out of the laundry room by a man who was trying to steal quarters from the vending machine. According to this story, when the tenant asked the man who he was and where he lived, the man allegedly replied that he was "with Connie, the manager."
Another story in this genre tells of an out-of-town guest of one of the tenants who was offered meth while sitting on the building's stoop. This meth dealer allegedly told the guest that there was a room in the Quinault's basement where one could sleep and get free clothes. As the tenant who was hosting the guest recounted it: "This person tried to get in behind [my guest], wasn't allowed in, but was in the hallway minutes later. We confronted him and asked if he was a resident. He said that he was a 'friend of the management.'"
This story continues: "About a week later, there were two people in front of the building, loudly talking on a cell phone, looking up at the manager's apartment, saying, 'I have a ball and a half, is that too much?' One proceeded to get a single master key out of his pocket and enter the building. This same person was outside the next night yelling 'manager, manager!' toward Connie's apartment."
Finally, there is the story of a gay resident in the Quinault who was woken up a few weeks ago by an argument between a "very drunk" Hartman and a male friend. "They argued downstairs for a while, then stomped up to the fourth floor, where both of our apartments are located," the resident said. "When they reached the top landing and were walking by my front door, I heard her companion say, very loudly, 'And another thing, I'm so fucking sick of living around all these goddamned cocksuckers.' I got up and stuck my head out of my door and asked that they take their drunken white-trash argument inside. I put a small note under her door the next morning asking her to keep her homophobic boyfriend on a leash."
Most alarming to the tenants are the things they say have transpired recently in response to their new vigilance. One tenant said she was threatened with removal from the building by one of Hartman's male friends. Another said that after the visit by Officer Letalian, she heard Hartman fighting with someone in her apartment and shouting, "You're going to fuck this up!" Still another tenant reported that when residents followed one "friend of the management" up to Hartman's unit, they heard him saying behind her closed door: "Fuck them. I'll kill all of them."
It took me three tries to reach Hartman by phone at her apartment last week. On the first try, a man who identified himself as Michael Allen, 50, picked up. He told me that Hartman was not around because she was in the hospital. (Indeed, fire department records show that the previous evening, July 5, an ambulance was called to the Quinault Apartments by a 44-year-old woman in Hartman's unit complaining of abdominal pain.)
Allen described himself to me as "a friend [of Hartman's] that's helping her get the Quinault cleaned up and get rid of all the riffraff in here."
He told me he was the former owner of hair salons "up and down the West Coast," and a current "world colorist" for Chenice. "I had everything," he told me. "I still do. Rolls-Royces. Antiques. And a penthouse in downtown—Pioneer Square." He said he was an ordained minister and an informant for Seattle Needle Exchange on "hot dope." (A spokesman for the King County Health Department, which supervises the needle exchange, said the program doesn't use informants and that health officials were unfamiliar with the term "hot dope.") Allen also said he was a gutter punk, "a long time ago, back when they had a code and some ethics and some honor."
Allen told me that Hartman recently had two roommates he disapproved of. "Both of them were nothing that I would allow in my home," he said. She was dating one of them, he said, and he described the man Hartman was dating as a homeless crystal-meth user who seemed respectable but stole from her and made copies of her building keys. "She's pretty naive," he told me.
I asked Allen whether Hartman is a drug user. "I couldn't tell you that," he said.
I asked him whether he thought someone who would date a homeless crystal-meth user has the judgment it takes to manage a 46-unit apartment building.
"I think we'll end now," Allen said. "And when you learn how to speak with me you can call back."
I called back the next day, Friday, and reached Hartman, who told me that Allen was a friend of hers but that he didn't live with her. Then she hung up on me. (Morris, with R.P. Management, told me she kicked Allen out of the building on Friday.)
I called Hartman back a short while later. This time she was willing to answer some questions. She made her offer to take a drug test, said she didn't know why tenants were making such accusations, and said she despaired of what might happen to her if she lost her job. "I won't even know what to do," she said. Then she hung up on me again.
The fog of recriminations and denials aside, it's quite clear that the normal social contract inside the Quinault is in a state of collapse. The breakdown, over a relatively short time span, provides a snapshot of how fragile the bond between renter and manager can be, and how much this bond relies on trust and good faith. It also shows how potent the fear of meth is on Capitol Hill these days. Behind much of the angst at the Quinault is the belief that meth—unlike other common Capitol Hill drugs such as pot and Ecstasy—creates parasitic and sometimes violent users who will take over a building as quickly and frighteningly as the drug can take over a person's life.
In a way, the breakdown is also a comment on the honeycombed, transient nature of apartment living. One Quinault resident, who spends little time at home, told me she'd had no idea anything was amiss until she showed up and found the building suddenly rekeyed.
Over the weekend, tenants reported that Hartman had been making apologies for the situation and complaining that the whole problem stemmed from a few tenants who were out to get her. Whether or not anyone believed this, the new locks on the building's entrances did seem to mollify some tenants, and a Sunday meeting of the "tenants' uprising" group was postponed. Still, several residents remained wary, and one said new locks were not much of a solution.
"How could I feel safe in my building," this tenant asked, "when the person who's causing this problem is the one in charge of the keys?"
It seems that someone in the building management hierarchy may have been asking a similar question. On Tuesday, just before The Stranger went to press, Morris of R.P. Management called to say that a new building manager was taking over at the Quinault and that an investigation of the residents' claims was underway. In a marked change of tone, Morris said she was "listening to the tenants" and she declined to defend Hartman's job performance or describe Hartman's current employment status, saying only that she could not discuss confidential information. For the moment, Hartman remained ensconced in her fourth-floor manager's apartment overlooking the park. But, said Morris, "She won't be living in the building much longer."