The hole in the ground across from City Hall--now the subject of a legal action by low income tenants against the City of Seattle
  • Ansel Herz
  • The hole in the ground across from City Hall—now the subject of a legal action by low-income tenants against the City of Seattle

Everyone—developers, housing activists, and leading politicians—agrees Seattle urgently needs more affordable housing. Much more. Something on the order of 28,000 units over the next twenty years, according to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee (HALA).

It's going to be hard to reach that goal, however, if the existing affordable housing stock is being sold off to private real estate developers and replaced with significantly higher-priced options.

Over the last year, that's exactly what's happened at both the Lockhaven apartments in Ballard and the Theodora building in Ravenna—and it almost happened at Squire Park Plaza in the Central District, until an overlooked provision in city documents and a last-ditch protest by tenants changed the course of events.

Now the latest fight between low-income tenants and developers has moved into the legal arena, with the City of Seattle directly implicated. Nine tenants who were displaced from the Lockhaven and Theodora apartments are taking the City of Seattle and Triad Civic Center LLC (a division of Triad Development) to court, alleging that a double standard exists: renters get forced out of their apartments with no recourse, while developers get endless extensions on permits to construct new buildings.

The tenants' land use petition (PDF), filed in King County Superior Court last week, focuses on the Civic Square Project in downtown Seattle. You might know it as that big hole in the ground, surrounded by artful makeshift walls, across 4th Avenue from City Hall. Way back in 2008, Triad Development—whose chairman and co-founder is John Goodman of Goodman Real Estate—entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement with the city for the property.

But when the Department of Planning and Development renewed the master use permit (MUP) on December 17 of this year, giving Triad until October of 2016 to begin construction on a new building, the tenants allege that DPD violated the law.

The permit had expired more than two years earlier, according to to the tenants, who are named as Displaced Tenants for Accountability and Transparency in their court filings. The group is affiliated with the Tenants Union of Washington. "By illegally renewing an expired permit," their petition claims, "the City has given special privileges to its business partner."

Triad did request a permit renewal in 2012, but they did so only after the permit had already expired, according to the tenants. DPD explained at the time that the developer would have to request a brand new master use permit. In response, Triad claimed the permit's expiration date had been listed improperly and threatened to sue the city, according to the tenants.

Amidst the claims of double standards, it's worth remembering that when the venerable homeless encampment Nickelsville tried to complete its planned move onto a new plot of private land in October, Mayor Ed Murray's office requested an extra review by DPD of the move, forcing the camp and its residents into a temporary space for nearly a week.

And when the developer that bought the Lockhaven, Goodman Real Estate, moved up Michelle Kinnucan's eviction date by six months, the disabled veteran said at the time that the company only relented and reversed course after a flood of protest messages from her supporters.

The mayor's office declined to comment on the legal wrangling over the Civic Square Project, saying it can't speak about pending litigation.

The last time the Tenants Union tried to use the courts to protect tenants, by the way, alleging that the sale of the Theodora building to Goodman Real Estate violated the Fair Housing Act, they didn't get anywhere. The lawsuit was thrown out.

Former Theodora tenants, many of them veterans, speak about their displacement on the steps of City Hall on Veterans Day. Their message? This developer--Goodman Real Estate--is not the neighbor we want.
  • Ansel Herz
  • On Veteran's Day at City Hall, former Theodora tenants, many of them veterans, spoke about being forced to find new lodgings. Their message? "This developer"—Goodman Real Estate—"is not the neighbor we want."

"The city has an opportunity to use its leverage with its developer to stop this [displacement of veterans at the Theodora]," said Jonathan Grant, the Tenants Union Director, on the steps of City Hall during a Veteran's Day protest in November, pointing to the connections between Goodman Real Estate and Triad Development—both of which are chaired by John Goodman.

Grant, who sits on the mayor's HALA committee, said the city could have used its leverage over the Triad property to push Goodman to increase levels of affordability at the re-developed Theodora.

"[The city] can't wait to come up with a ten-year plan," Grant said—that's what the mayor's HALA committee is charged with doing by May, in order to address the city's housing affordability crisis.

Given the way things appear to going with the Civic Square Project, Grant added, "We are calling for the city to start over, and create a democratic process to create a vision for this square block piece of public land that is truly about civic engagement and responds to the current housing crisis, and certainly doesn’t involve violations of the public trust."

Lee Blackden, a former tenant at the Theodora, said a group of tenants met with the mayor's office and "asked them to help us save our homes at the Theodora from John Goodman...The Mayor’s office listened to nothing we had to say and were dismissive of tenants concerns, at the same time that they’re breaking their own laws to facilitate a deal with Mr. Goodman himself. What a double standard."

Goodman Real Estate said it had no comment on the legal filing. Triad Development however, accused the Tenants Union of launching a spurious legal campaign against their downtown project.

"It's just another example of our land use process being used as a weapon by a special interest group and not for which it was meant," said Brett Allen, a spokesman for the company. "There are serious factual errors in their complaint and their petition is without merit."

An initial hearing is scheduled to take place on February 7.

This post has been updated since its original publication.