FABIOLA WOODS, a tough, silver-haired grandma, sounded much like the other pissed-off renters at the landlord retaliation hearing on January 17. She spoke about illegal rent increases and bad management. "We all feel that we will be retaliated against for my coming here," Woods said.

But there is something different about Woods' situation. Her landlord isn't the typical private corporation that buys up land in Seattle only to jack up rents and kick out the poor tenants. Woods' landlord is Southeast Effective Development (SEED), a nonprofit development group that's supposedly dedicated to preserving low-income housing in Rainier Valley. (SEED has its hands in about eight low-income apartment buildings.)

Rainier Valley business people and residents started SEED in 1975 to get rid of boarded-up, run-down buildings and attract money and fundamental services (like grocery stores) into the low-income area. SEED is well funded by the city (Seattle's Office of Economic Development gave SEED about $4.3 million in funding between 1996 and 2000). Several successful public figures, including King County Executive Ron Sims, Governor Gary Locke, and former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, are previous SEED presidents. The current head of SEED, Earl Richardson, spent 20 years working for the city in the housing and community-development departments. In 1986, SEED created its housing program. The organization has two missions: making South Seattle a more attractive site for business investors and keeping housing cheap and in good shape.

But SEED's two-pronged approach seems conflicted. The group's dedication to boost the business district is clear. Most notably, SEED played a major part in developing the $15 million Rainier Valley Square shopping center in the mid-'90s. SEED has also helped draw smaller businesses like Lottie Motts and La Medusa to the neighborhood, and helped hook up existing businesses with about $200,000 to fix themselves up. Accord-ing to Mark Griffin, a senior community development specialist with the city, SEED has been "terribly successful in bringing investment into the neighborhood."

According to tenants, SEED seems less dedicated to the low-income housing side of its mission. "We are concerned that SEED is losing its commitment to provide low- income housing," tenants wrote last month in an itemized complaint letter to SEED. Twenty-one tenants (including Woods, who live in a 33-unit low-income SEED building on Martin Luther King Way South) signed the letter.

The tenants say SEED's management of their building has recently raised red flags about the organization's devotion to keep rents low. Their complaints include illegal rent increases, odd treatment by an unpopular and possibly abusive apartment manager, and overdue maintenance fixes. Tenants received two rent increases within the last 12 months. That brought Woods' rent from $380 in April 2000 to $445 this month, a 17-percent rise. SEED didn't give Woods or her neighbors the 60-day notice Seattle law requires for yearly rent increases of more than 10 percent.

SEED has since temporarily rescinded the rent increases, saying the problem was "miscommunication." SEED's Richardson also says he'll talk with on-site manager Juan Stedman about the tenants' complaints and drop a note about their discussion in Stedman's employee file.

Ultimately, Richardson doesn't seem to view the situation the same way as the tenants. For example, he denies hiking the rents more than 10 percent within a year, claiming that Woods "fabricated" the 10-percent rumor. (The Tenants Union provided The Stranger copies of the rent-increase notices confirming the 17-percent increase.) Richardson says the problem between his organization and the tenants is just poor communication. He says SEED is as committed to its housing projects as its shopping plazas.

allie@thestranger.com

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