• Ravenna-Bryant Community Association
  • The Theodora, named after the daughter of the couple that founded Volunteers of America. "We’ve always had a soft spot for it locally and nationally. It served people who were in really great need," says Lori Drabant, a VOA spokeswoman. Now it's up for sale.

In this week's paper, I write about a new committee (the biggest one so far, but will it stand up for renters?) empaneled by the mayor and city council to tackle Seattle's housing affordability crisis. While the committee gets ready to begin its pondering on November 4, it's worth remembering that the city's already existing and limited amount of below-market-rate housing supply is under threat right now.

At the Lockhaven apartments in Ballard, rents are more than doubling and many tenants have been forced to move. Even the building's new owner, Goodman Real Estate, in the midst of a public-relations battle with a group of its tenants, told me last April that Seattle renters deserve more protections.

In the Central District, Squire Park Plaza—which had been explicitly designated as a partially affordable housing complex—was nearly sold off to a for-profit company that low-income-housing advocates believed intended to jack up rents to market rates. After inhabitants raised a ruckus, that sale was scuttled.

Now it's happening again in North Seattle, this time with a 113-unit building called the Theodora. Built in 1965 with federal subsidies, the Theodora has offered sub-market rates to elderly and disabled residents for decades. But Volunteers of America (VOA), a national low-income-housing nonprofit that runs the building, decided to put it on the market in 2013. According to county records, the property is worth $8.5 million.

Goodman Real Estate, which boasts of "harvesting the gains" from flipping "distressed" properties on its own website, stepped up as a buyer. Backed by the Tenants Union, the Thedora residents formed a committee, meeting in the evenings in the building's common seating area, to protest.

The tenants accuse VOA of negligent management of the building and using the shoddy condition of the building as a justification to get rid of the property. In 2012, the state's Department of Social and Health Services revoked the Theodora's boarding home license and cited VOA for a host of violations, including underheated water and disrespectful treatment of residents.

"The first 10 years it was great," said 54-year-old Rick Weaver, who served in the military in Korea. "We had a lot of vets here. But around 2001 to 2004 was when everything started falling apart." The residents even took up a collection drive to replace the silverware when VOA said it couldn't pay for it, he explained. As Weaver told me this, earlier this year, the other residents gathered in the living room, going back and forth with each other and strategizing on how to fight the sale of the building.

When VOA told the tenants the building was to be sold in August 2013, Weaver told me, there was "pandemonium." A number of residents, including close friends of the tenants still at the building, rushed to identify new housing options and left without taking advantage of tenant relocation assistance funds. That happened at the Lockhaven apartments, too.

Now, there are just 27 residents left in the building. In June, the Theodora Rescue Committee filed a lawsuit against VOA and Goodman alleging the sale of the Theodora violates the Fair Housing Act because it would “disproportionately impact” people with disabilities. (The housing act singles out people with disabilities for protection.)

A land use sign posted outside the building.
  • Tenants Union
  • A land use sign posted outside the building.

Last month, UW public health researcher Jesse Plasack submitted an analysis to the court purporting to show that North Seattle public housing serving the elderly or people with disabilities is clustered in an area west of Interstate 5. The Theodora is one of just two buildings north of downtown and east of the freeway.

"This suggests that the availability of such housing in this region would be greatly diminished if the Theodora stopped housing individuals with disabilities," Plasack writes in a declaration filed on behalf of the tenants. She carried out the analysis on a pro-bono basis.

How does VOA respond to these charges? The organization did everything it can to find a nonprofit buyer for the building, marketing it to 75 of them, said spokesman David Burch in a statement. But none made an offer.

"Volunteers of America is not unlawfully discriminating against anyone by selling The Theodora," he writes. "To the contrary, it has spent significant resources over the years to maintain The Theodora as affordable housing. It also has made special efforts to find suitable replacement housing for residents." He accuses the Tenants Union of waging a "misleading" campaign.

Whew. Where does that leave us? Well, there are a few things that, ideally, I'd like to see happen here:

(a) No one should use the fact that a mayoral committee is studying the housing situation as an excuse not to act now to stop the loss of existing affordable units, especially those that serve elderly and disabled people;

(b) Mayor Ed Murray, who intervened in the case of a veteran facing foreclosure and says he wants to end veteran homelessness in Seattle by next year, should explain how his administration is going to handle cases like this—where an imminent decline in affordable units is at stake—in the intervening period between now and when the committee finishes its work in May;

And (c) Goodman Real Estate, a local company that has said renters deserve more protections, should rally the developer community around workable solutions. I haven't heard a peep from them since last April. The Theodora tenants, by the way, are requesting that CEO John Goodman withdraw from the Theodora sale agreement. The Low Income Housing Institute, one of the largest housing nonprofits in the city, says it was never made aware VOA was unloading the Theodora and would consider acquiring the building if given the opportunity. VOA is putting the building up for sale to the highest bidder, LIHI's director, Sharon Lee, told me, and then using the proceeds to build housing elsewhere in the country. "They're not even keeping the money in Seattle," she said. (UPDATE: VOA spokesman David Burch responds: "We do not have plans to use the proceeds for any specific project in another part of the country. It is false that we have it earmarked for such a use.")

VOA said it has a "legally binding sale agreement" with Goodman that it intends to stick to.

Obviously, judges are going to sort out the lawsuit. According to the Tenants Union, a hearing is expected to take place before December 4, the date set for the closing of the sale of the building to Goodman Real Estate.