On August 2, residents of a 10-unit, '60s-style walkup apartment building on the north end of Capitol Hill were called to a vacant unit for a meeting. The tenants figured the meeting was set up so they could meet the building's new owners—their building, 731 Broadway East, sold for $1.5 million in late July.
Instead, the tenants were shocked to find out their apartments were slated to become condos. The residents, on month-to-month leases, had 90 days to pack up and leave if they decided not to buy their units. "Everyone was stunned," says Matthew Amster-Burton, whose young family has lived in a $975 two-bedroom unit for a year and a half. The developer offered to sell the space to them for nearly $330,000, much more than Amster-Burton and his wife—a freelance writer and a teacher, respectively—can afford. (So far, tenants say no one plans to buy their unit.)
Residents of the building are upset that they have to leave their homes so soon, and they point to Washington State's Condominium Act—with its developer-friendly conversion provisions, and few protections for tenants—as the primary problem.
The law requires 90-day's notice before tenants have to leave. Tenants get 60 days to decide whether or not to buy their units. Residents who make less than 80 percent of the median income qualify for $500 in relocation assistance to help them move. Compared to many other cities and states—where tenants get between one and three years to vacate, sometimes receive more relocation assistance, and in some places get to approve the conversion in the first place—Washington's law "is really pathetic," says Carole Glickfield, who's lived in the building for 25 years. She's struggling to find a new apartment in her price range on Capitol Hill before the clock runs out (making matters potentially worse for displaced renters, vacancy rates in Seattle are on the decline, and rents are inching up).
But the law is good for developers, who like to get started on renovations as soon as possible so they can turn around and sell the converted units quickly. Carol Chambers, the developer at 731 Broadway East—she's trying to create urban condos aimed at first-time homebuyers—says a longer notice period would make conversions nearly impossible for "little developers like me." Chambers and her husband focus on just one modest project at a time. She says she would lose too much money waiting more than a few months for tenants to leave. "The idea that you would buy and hold a building," before renovating it, says Chambers, would be "a killer."
The number of condo conversions in Seattle is skyrocketing, as developers scramble to take advantage of the region's booming condo market (as of July, condo sales in King County were up six percent, while single-family home sales were flat). In the first half of 2005 alone, 579 apartment units in Seattle became condos, according to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development. That's compared to 345 units for all of 2004. "It's a craze," says DPD's Gerry Miyazaki, who inspects the conversion projects. Current projects include the Sage building in Wallingford, the Sheffield on Capitol Hill, and even the former Queen Anne High School building, which has been apartments for nearly 20 years. As of July, the average sale price of a condo in the region is $216,995, which translates into an approximate $1,300 mortgage payment with no money down. As of March, however, average rents were $500 less.
Recognizing that there's little they can do about the situation in their own building—short of complaining or hiring an attorney to try and mitigate the inconvenience—a few residents at 731 Broadway East have asked city council members to make condo conversions more tenant-friendly, so other renters won't be caught in a similar situation.
Amster-Burton says the city council could model changes after other states, where tenants get more time to find a new home. "Seattle is just about the bottom of the barrel," says Amster-Burton. "Florida—Florida!—requires 270 day's notice. In Boston it's a year. In New York, it's three." Some of those jurisdictions allow extra time for tenants with disabilities, or don't allow them to be displaced at all (one resident of 731 Broadway East says she's having an especially hard time apartment hunting, due to her MS.) Additionally, Amster-Burton suggests, rules requiring more relocation assistance or barring major renovation during the move-out period would help tenants. "There is no incentive [in the law] for them to treat us like tenants and not like obstacles," Amster-Burton explains. "They can do invasive, noisy construction on whatever schedule they like."
At 731 Broadway East, the developer got started on renovations right away, just a day after frustrated tenants learned they were losing their homes. On August 5, the developer's team sent residents a letter, warning them to expect "a fair amount of construction, noise, dust and general interference with your day-to-day life," over the next 90 days, including power washing the building's exterior, asbestos removal inside, and installing a new roof.
Residents contend that the renovations are disruptive and messy, and are making the building "not habitable" in an effort to push tenants out more quickly. "The faster people move out, the more money [the developer] will make," says Amster-Burton. Tenants—including two who have lived in the building for 25 and 32 years—say it's more difficult to pack up and find a new place to live when your current home is in chaos. ("There was so much pounding" when they replaced the roof, says Glickfield, who lives on the top floor, "my smoke alarm kept falling off the ceiling.")
Chambers points out that the improvements she's making to the building—fixing roof leaks, for example—are "normal for an apartment owner to do." She says she is well within her rights to make the fixes. Also, she says she's offered tenants a bonus $500 to leave by the end of September, and another $50 if they clear out their storage unit (so work can begin on a new, eleventh unit in the basement). That's in addition to the law's relocation assistance. "They could have a nice little nest egg," Chambers says, baffled as to why some residents are complaining, instead of simply taking the money and moving. She's frustrated: The tenants' complaints—they're making near-daily calls to the city, making sure condo conversion procedure is followed verbatim—have bumped the move-out date to the end of December, a delay that "has cost a lot of money," says Chambers, a Capitol Hill resident herself. Tenants are "stirring the pot," when her team is "doing our very best to go through the procedure in the most responsible way," Chambers explains.
Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen, chair of the Housing, Human Services and Health Committee, has been following the situation at 731 Broadway East, and is looking at whether the city has any power to strengthen tenant protections in the state condo conversion law. Currently, "Tenants may have no money to be able to buy their unit, and not enough time to find another suitable place. I'm very concerned about that," Rasmussen says, especially given the increase in condo conversions. "The question is, which apartment building is next?"
GREENWOOD: A dozen block-watch captains in the neighborhood just west of Aurora Avenue—between NW 75th and NW 95th Streets—have formed a new group, Greenwood Aurora Involved Neighbors (GAIN), to combat what neighbors say is a two-year increase in crime. "We suspect it has something to do with the SODA and SOPA rulings that basically push folks off of Aurora up to the residential area," explains Monica Oxford, who founded the group. (SODA and SOAP laws bar drug or prostitution offenders from returning to the area where they were arrested.) Things have gotten so bad, she explains, that two weeks ago a block-watch captain was beaten "to unconsciousness" and left on the sidewalk after he confronted a group of teens suspected of dealing drugs. GAIN members plan to take their case—they're demanding more police resources for the area—to the city council.
VASHON ISLAND: Bike commuters who take the Washington State Ferries downtown and back say that ferry officials are blocking bicycles in favor of SUVs. On several runs, loading patterns mean bikers are getting stuck at the back of the ferry, preventing them from unloading first, with the foot passengers, and making their bus connections. "If you're stuck in the back, the busses are gone by the time you unload," says Vashon bike activist Henry Haselton. The problem, he says, is the ferry system has a written rule preventing cyclists from simply rolling to the front of the ferry. A ferry official told Haselton that wide SUVs take up so much space that there isn't room for bikes to get through without a risk of scratching the vehicles. "They're basically saying SUVs are more important," says Haselton, who's sent an official complaint to the ferry system's director. —AJ