Last week, Seattle City Council members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant stood with tenants and advocates in front of a Columbia City apartment building to draw attention to tenants who are living with roaches, mold, exposed wires, and broken heaters and still facing dramatic rent increases. At that press conference, Sawant called the owner of the 13-unit building at 6511 Rainier Ave. S. "a prime example of the kind of slumlord-ism that so many tenants in this city are dealing with."
Here's a look inside the apartments:
(That video was made by the YWCA Firesteel project.)
Tenants said they were previously paying about $550 a month and now getting increases to $1,150 a month or more. The conditions attracted a flurry of media coverage and new inspections of the building. Other council members have also joined Sawant and Licata in criticizing the practices of Carl Haglund, who bought the building in July.
Yesterday, Haglund finally responded in a substantive way to the issue, promising to give tenants free rent for the month of October and not to raise rents until the building meets the requirements to pass city inspection. (The building had passed inspection before, according to the city's planning department, but only two apartments in the 13-unit building were inspected.)
Haglund said he didn’t realize just how bad the conditions were at the building when he bought it in July and that he was “out of the country for five weeks when the sale was finalized."
"A slumlord would continue to rent these really cheap apartments in their current condition, whether or not they need repairs,” the statement reads. "I want to make it clear this is not who I am, nor is this how Columbia City Condos operates. We are in the business of providing safe housing at market rents."
Sawant and Licata, along with Council Member Mike O'Brien, tenants, and advocates went ahead with a protest of Haglund they had planned for this morning, calling attention to the conditions and advocating for rent control.
Council Member Bruce Harrell, who has also visited the tenants, asked council members at a meeting Monday to chip in to a "quick little fund" to help the tenants. "There are some tenants that have some real needs," Harrell told his fellow council members. "$500, $1,000 would go a long way." (Sawant responded that she is donating to the tenants from her Solidarity Fund.)
The council also passed a new law Monday that has been in the works for a while, but could help tenants in situations like this. That law attempts to discourage so-called "economic evictions," in which low-income people are forced out by massive rent increases so landlords can renovate their buildings and then rent the apartments at higher rates without having to pay the displaced tenants relocation assistance. Here's how that new rule would work.
Sawant points to landlords like Haglund as one reason the state should lift the ban on rent control. She also says the city should ban rent increases at buildings with housing code violations. (That would require an end to the state ban on rent control.)
But Roger Valdez, a developer lobbyist who's come to Haglund's defense, says the only place for landlords like Haglund to get money to improve rundown buildings is by increasing rents.
Valdez says the previous owner of the building on Rainier Avenue South was "subsidizing those tenants" with low rent rates and that increasing rents was Haglund's only way to get the building up to code.
"[If I'm a landlord] there’s no unicorn farm where I can say I’ll sell that unicorn to make money and make improvements," Valdez says. "The only way to do it is to increase the rents."
The tenants highlighted by Licata and Sawant aren't the first to complain about Carl Haglund.
Along with the building at 6511 Rainier Ave. S., other properties of his have a history of complaints (later remedied) on file with the city's planning department. I talked to a few current and former tenants of Haglund's who didn't want to be identified, but said they too have lived with mold or unaddressed maintenance issues. Yelp reviewers who say they are or have been Haglund tenants complain about similar issues.
At recent council meetings, a renter named Greg Jackson has also brought up Haglund's name. Jackson says he's a tenant of Haglund's and is facing steady rent increases ($200 over the last year) despite black mold, old carpet, and parts of the building that are not wheelchair-accessibile (Jackson uses a wheelchair). The anti-foreclosure group SAFE is also working to bring attention to Jackson's case. Haglund wouldn't comment specifically on the details of Jackson's case, but said Jackson will receive relocation assistance and "we believe we've been fair and patient and we've done the best we can for the tenant."
At a council meeting Monday, Council Member Tom Rasmussen brought up Valdez's defense of Haglund in the Seattle Times, calling it "unconscionable" to "justify or to rationalize the eviction of low-income minority refugees and immigrants." At that same meeting, Sawant called it "obscene," saying there's "no defense we can make in good conscious of slumlord-ism."
The firestorm around this building is both uniting council members in standing against blatantly fucked up living conditions and highlighting the divisions at play in this fall's city council elections.
Valdez claims Sawant—and other local politicians like tenant advocate Jon Grant, who's challenging Council President Tim Burgess—are vilifying landlords for their own political gain. He argues council members have over-regulated the housing market, which he believes has limited housing supply and therefore leads to the high rent costs they're now decrying.
If the council really wanted to help the tenants in the building in question, Valdez says they should immediately create a $1 million revolving fund that offers developers low-interest loans to fix up buildings like this. In exchange, he says, the city could require landlords who get the loans to temporarily limit rent increases.
"What we should be doing is saying, 'Thanks for buying the building, Carl. How can we help you out to make sure these people don’t get a rent increase?'" Valdez says. "It’s not about greed or people trying to hurt other people."
In his statement, Haglund sounded a lot like Valdez, blaming Sawant for "scoring political points instead of working to improve the conditions in rental units all over the city by advocating for resources to make improvements to meet the new standards without having to raise rents."
Sawant and Grant have a fundamentally different view of landlords, regularly framing them as a set of largely financially well-off people capitalizing on the same economic system that's driving poor people out of the city.
Both have made calls for rent control and higher fees on developers central points in their election campaigns and slammed their opponents for taking money from landlords and developers.
Burgess and Pamela Banks, who's challenging Sawant in District 3, have both received the maximum allowed $700 contribution from Haglund this year. As this issue has blown up, though, neither campaign is willing to keep the cash.
Before Sawant and Licata drew attention to this particular Haglund building, Grant criticized Burgess over the contribution last month. Burgess's campaign then said he would donate the money to Columbia Legal Services. Burgess's political consultant Christian Sinderman says that decision came "after Tim talked to another renter in a Haglund property who thought a donation was a better idea than a refund."
Grant is now calling on Burgess to also return or donate money from John Goodman of Goodman Real Estate, whom Grant has criticized for evicting and raising rents on tenants at the Lockhaven Apartments in Ballard.
Banks's campaign has said it will return Haglund's money.
They're not the only ones. In total this year, Haglund has given $4,150 to candidates for public office, the majority of that to people running for Seattle City Council.
Haglund has donated the maximum-allowed $700 to five candidates: Sandy Brown, who's running in District 5 in North Seattle; Shannon Braddock, running in West Seattle's District 1; Pamela Banks, running in District 3, covering Capitol Hill and the Central District; and Burgess and Lorena González, running for two different citywide positions. He's given $250 to Sally Bagshaw, running in District 7 downtown. This year, he's also donated $200 each to Republican state Rep. Matt Manweller and King County Assessor Lloyd Hara, who's running for reelection this fall.
All of those candidates—except Manweller—are returning Haglund's money to him or donating it.
González, Braddock, and Banks say they've returned the donations. Brown says he plans to do the same.
And, after this very weird e-mail exchange with Sally Bagshaw, she confirmed she'll return Haglund's donation as well:
ME: In light of complaints from tenants against landlord Carl Haglund, some candidates are returning his campaign contributions. Do you plan to return the $250 your campaign received from Haglund?
BAGSHAW: What do you know, Heidi? I do not know Carl.
ME: Do you plan to return his donation?
BAGSHAW: Is this the guy that Kshama and Nick exposed this week? If it's the same guy, sure.
Hara also says he's asked his campaign treasurer to return the money. (Not all of the latest campaign spending reports are online yet, so it'll be later this month before we can confirm that all of these campaigns have indeed sent Haglund his money back.)
Manweller, unsurprisingly, is more than happy to keep the money:
No. I will not be returning Carl's donation. I'm proud to support anyone who opposes the the economically illiterate, anti-worker, pro-poverty policies of working Washington and Kshama Sawant. In fact, I would be happy to take all the donations that the other Seattle council members returned. If the city of Seattle is going to pursue policies the drive the cost of rents, then they should not be surprised when rents go up. But for councilmembers to blame Carl for the consequences of the policies they themselves have adopted illustrates the disingenuous nature of their complaints.
Haglund's donations this year total more money in one year than the rest of Haglund's history as a political donor in Washington, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. His past donations stretch back to 2003, supporting Hara, the pro-gay-marriage Washington United for Marriage, the Rental Housing Association's political arm, and, bizarrely, Licata's 2005 reelection bid. In 2003, Haglund donated to John Manning, who was on the city council in the '90s, resigned after two domestic violence arrests, and then ran again in 2003.
So, it's nice to hear that he's ready to start spending money to fix up this dilapidated building considering he's, you know, doing OK enough to to shell out political donations for council elections in a year when the stakes are high for both tenants and developers as the council begins taking up a bunch of housing affordability legislation.
When I asked Haglund about the candidates returning his donations, he avoided commenting directly, but wrote in an e-mailed statement that his company "will continue to stay engaged in the political and policy making process."
While Burgess's donation can't be processed until after the election, refunds can happen right away. That means Haglund has around $3,000 coming his way that he could spend on, I don't know, an exterminator?