IT'S BECOME A COMMON SCAM IN SEATTLE: Landlord wants to remodel apartment building to draw more rent. To avoid city laws requiring relocation benefits for displaced tenants, landlord simply jacks rents up to an outrageous level, forcing people to move on their own.

• Last summer, an elderly couple living in northeast Seattle received notice that their rent would be going up from $710 to $1,800.

• In September, a landlord in Eastlake increased rents by more than $2,000 with less than a month's notice, forcing a 68-year-old man with a tracheotomy and fixed income to leave town.

• In March, Richard Kennedy received a letter from No Boundaries Ltd., his landlord at the Eileen Court apartments on John St. in Capitol Hill, notifying him that his rent would be nearly doubling, from $475 to $945.

It's the low vacancy rate--less than two and a half percent city-wide--and the constant stream of willing tenants that makes the scam work. "If we don't do something about this soon," says pro-renter City Council candidate Judy Nicastro, "there won't be anyone left in Seattle but rich people."

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That's how Richard Kennedy felt when he got the letter from No Boundaries. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "It was so obviously an act of retaliation." Kennedy had an extra black mark by his name because when his landlord had tried to evict him in order to make "necessary improvements," he called the Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU). Turned out what the landlord was doing wasn't legal. A few weeks later, Kennedy received the rent increase.

The problem with a straight eviction for renovations is that there's a cost to landlords. Under Seattle's Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance, tenants are entitled to a 90-day advance warning and, if they qualify, $2,000 to help them move (half paid by the landlord and half by the city). Landlords understandably hate the ordinance, and recently took the city to court to strike it down. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law last year.

When Kennedy learned his landlord was breaking the law, he posted a flyer inside the Eileen Court building that included the DCLU's phone number. Fellow tenants followed up. DCLU received several complaints from tenants and, in an unusual slap, took action against No Boundaries. The company was forced to rescind the eviction notices--but on the very same day, they doubled the rents.

Turns out it's illegal to raise rents in retaliation, too. And though police rarely enforce that law (surprise, surprise), they may do so in this case. Seattle Police Department Community Service Officer Annette Gonzales has contacted tenants at Eileen Court and is investigating the matter. Of course, even if the police do put together a case, it would be up to the city to prosecute, and City Attorney Mark Sidran--himself a landlord--is not exactly known for going after rogue property owners.

Reyn Yates, who purchased Eileen Court a year and a half ago, denies that the rent hikes were retaliatory. He says the original rents were "ridiculously low for the market." Besides, he says, everybody in the building knew about the upcoming renovation work. That's why the leases were month-to-month. "We've been very up front with the tenants about our plans," he says.

That's little comfort to tenants, one of whom says she's "never gotten a straight answer" out of her landlord, and complains that renovations have amounted to little more than a shell of ugly vinyl siding around the building's exterior and a big pile of junk in the basement. Another tenant, who has lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the building for over nine years, was so livid about his rent increase of over 110 percent--from $425 to $895--that he wrote to Mayor Paul Schell. As of press time, Schell hadn't responded.

Tenants can refuse to pay rent increases they think are retaliatory, with or without the mayor's blessing, says Scott Winn of the Tenants Union, but they risk being taken to court and evicted. To fight an eviction takes money, and as Winn points out, "judges have been known to side with the landlord."

Several of the Eileen Court tenants have already begun saving up the $2,000 or so it will take to move. "I don't think I could deal with waiting month to month to see what the next letter's going to say," says one.

Kennedy agrees. "I'm very excited to leave this place. But even if I was leaving tomorrow I would fight this. It's completely unfair. I don't want landlords getting the idea that they can get away with this."