City Passes the Buck on Displaced Tenants
The Department of Planning and Development (DPD)—which grants building permits and supposedly safeguards tenants' rights—is refusing to offer financial or legal assistance to former tenants of a University District triplex at Northeast 55th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast who were wrongly evicted by the property owner. The owner gave tenants plenty of notice that the building was being demolished; however, the owner didn't notify DPD until after the tenants had moved out, which allowed the developer—and the city—to sidestep paying for tenant relocation.
Even though DPD is aware of the loophole, they're not doing much to get the developer to set things right. "Obviously it's sending a signal to these developers that they can give premature notice," says John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. "So long as [tenants] move out before they apply [for a permit], everything's hunky-dory."
The city provides $2,000 to low-income households—or two months' rent to tenants with higher incomes—if they're required to move due to significant construction or demolition of their rental units, far more than what's given to tenants for relocation due to condo conversion. Tenants have to meet certain income requirements, but, if they're eligible, the city and the property owner are responsible for splitting the relocation costs.
After everyone had moved out of the triplex, the property owner filed for construction permits. Initially, DPD went to bat for the tenants—threatening to withhold the developer's construction permits—but they backed off when they found out that the tenants had been out of the building for months.
Because there was no one left in the building, the city's Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance—designed to protect renters—wasn't triggered. After spending nearly a month crashing on his brother's couch, Casey Zautke—a former resident of the triplex—learned that he could've been eligible for relocation assistance.
Even though the city requires property owners to get a "tenant relocation license" to demolish an occupied building—a regulation the building owners skirted—DPD is shifting the blame to the tenants.
"Tenants moved based on a bad notice," says Elizabeth Fischer of DPD's Property Owner and Tenant Assistance unit. Fischer says that if tenants had called in June when they'd received their eviction notices, DPD could have done something about it. But, Fischer says, "We didn't get a complaint about it until after everyone moved." Now, the city is balking at paying for its half of Zautke's relocation, and they say they won't force the developer to pay either. However, Fischer says DPD has called and "encouraged the owner to pay." If the owner doesn't pay up, tenants will have no other recourse but to take the property owner to court.
"[DPD] seems to agree that there's a violation here," says Fox. "I don't get why they aren't exercising their enforcement authority." Fox has been working with Zautke since September in what has so far been a fruitless attempt to get the city and the developer to cough up some cash. According to Fox, Zautke isn't the first person to get burned by this loophole in city regulations.
While Zautke says the city hasn't returned his calls, he has received an e-mail from the developer, which said they wanted to "give him information about relocation assistance." The developer did not respond to The Stranger's request for comment.
Zautke is also trying to figure out if he even qualifies for assistance. While he may meet the income requirements on his own, the city would also factor in his former roommate's income, even though they no longer live together. Zautke believes he's eligible, but he's having trouble tracking down his former roommate, and he hasn't been able to get in touch with any of his neighbors to let them know they could be eligible to receive relocation assistance.
"Its very disturbing to me that there's any way [for developers] to get away with this," he says.