When Seattle introduced its "Clean Up Your Act" program in March, increasing fines for "nuisance property owners," groups like the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association were thrilled to have a new tool to, they say, force landlords to better maintain their properties. According to a press release from the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD), Clean Up Your Act could increase some fines from $15 a day to as much as $500 a day. "Landlords and property owners who refuse to repair dilapidated homes, turn their backyards into junkyards, or let bushes and weeds grow out of control" now face stiff and rapidly increasing penalties from the city.
Residents of West Seattle's Delridge neighborhood, nicknamed "Poverty Gulch" in the '30s, were also happy about the program. In fact, they celebrated with a visit from Mayor Greg Nickels, walking him through the neighborhood and sharing stories about some of the more notorious houses in the area. However, when the tour passed a large green house, its yard strewn with odds and ends—a prime example of the type of property Clean Up Your Act was designed to deal with—neighbors were hoping to shuffle Nickels by it. But the property caught Nickels's eye and he asked about it.
The house, which sits on two adjacent properties on Delridge Way Southwest, not far from the West Seattle Golf Course, is well known to neighbors, who are split on how to deal with its owner. The property owner, who we will not name, is schizophrenic, something that makes him especially vulnerable to the city's new program. North Delridge Neighborhood Council cochair Mike Dady describes the man as having a "hoarding-type mentality." The owner has accumulated an ever-expanding collection of old televisions and computer monitors, which grew into a larger problem, neighbors say, when his cluttered yard, and the alley behind it, became an attractive refuge for people Dady characterizes as "meth addicts, transients, vandals, and squatters." Dady says the property owner became a target for these individuals, who took advantage of the man's mental state, selling drugs and hiding weapons caches on his property, as well as melting down the stray TVs and monitors in his yard for the metals inside.
While some residents want to protect the man, others are fed up. Ron Angeles, the city's neighborhood coordinator for Delridge, says that the property owner sees himself "as an artist, a recycler," and an antidisplacement activist, but ultimately "what the community would like to see is [him] selling his property and living in a decent place. The community is concerned for his well-being. We don't want to put a person out, but we don't want other predators to take advantage of [him]." Angeles says that neighbors have repeatedly offered to help clean up the property, which the owner usually declines.
On two different occasions, Seattle Public Utilities has sent crews to help clean up the man's yard—hauling away several tons of car parts and torn-up carpeting—but since the man has continued to violate building maintenance codes, DPD spokesman Alan Justad says that they will be citing him with a $500 and $150 fine for his two properties.
The man's state-appointed guardian, B. Bradford Kogut, is optimistic that his client will be able to avoid the fines, as they are taking steps to sell at least one of the properties and create a trust fund for the man. "I wish we had the finances to keep the properties going," Kogut says. "Under the best conditions, I'd love to keep him in there. He's so high functioning. Because of his intelligence and his charm, he's gotten along with the neighbors."