"This is a place to make a stand about the tenant issue," Deckert says. "The fact that this can happen just shows that tenants are screwed."
What happened was this: After taking over the building from an independent owner earlier this year, R.P. Management raised rents more than 10 percent in a 12-month period -- and they only gave 30 days notice. The increase violates a 1998 city ordinance that requires 60 days written notice for such an increase.
In a city where vacancies are low -- the vacancy rate dipped to 3.6 percent, a 17-year low, in 1997 -- and rents are skyrocketing, King County's $806 average rent represents a six percent jump from last year. Landlords are getting bolder and bolder about raising rents.
This is precisely what happened at the seven-story Biltmore, an old-fashioned building with a brick courtyard, red carpeting, and stained-glass windows in the lobby, along with tricky wiring and "ice box" refrigerators in the apartments. Deckert's rent, for example, went from $685 to $850; a 24 percent jump. Deckert and his girlfriend moved out on July 31. Other tenants, including Worthington Enslow in unit #10 -- who lives on government assistance, due to a birth defect involving his spinal cord -- are also being forced to move because of the $100 rent increase. "I'm on the Seattle Housing Authority wait list," Enslow says. "I guess I'm S.O.L."
"This is the gentrification issue," says another angry Biltmore tenant, Brandon Woodruff. "R.P. Management, Inc. sees real potential here to raise the rents and get new people in here. Not the people who live here now."
Rent-jacking is a city-wide phenomenon. In fact, the Tenants Union keeps a running list: Over half the tenants at the Qualman Apartments in the Central Area were forced to move after rents rose 20 to 50 percent in July 1998; over half the residents at the East Edgar Apartments in Eastlake had to move when rents doubled; and several long-time elderly residents were forced out of the Fountain Plaza in Magnolia when rents jumped 20 percent.
"What's going on at the Biltmore is an example of what's happening all over Seattle," says Scott Winn, a Tenants Union organizer. "This is another example of economic gentrification. Getting out lower-income tenants in order to get higher-income ones. Obviously this is about profits."
In fact, the aggressive push for profits is landing landlords in legal hot water. Last spring's well-publicized rent hike by Reyn Yates, the landlord of the Eileen Court Apartments on East John Street, has recently drawn the attention of the city attorney's office. The city believes the hike may have been retaliation against tenants who originally balked at illegal eviction notices.
Now the tenants at the Biltmore are crying retaliation too.
Immediately after residents responded to Deckert's late-night call to action, sending letters to R.P. Management protesting the untimely rent increase, R.P. responded by adhering to the city's legal guidelines, giving 60 days notice, but simultaneously escalating the rate. For example, Woodruff, in apartment 110, saw the increase on his studio jump from 17 percent to 27 percent.
"Because we made a stink about following the law we were then given an additional rent increase," Deckert says. "This is retaliation. We're convinced of it."
A spokesman at R.P. Management, Inc. said the follow-up rent increase was not retaliation. He refused, however, to comment further.
Fifty Biltmore residents gathered in the gothic lobby on August 9 to voice their concerns to a Community Service Officer. CSOs work within the Seattle Police Department on issues like landlord-tenant disputes to mediate and, if necessary, bring law-breaking landlords to the attention of the city attorney's office.
Ultimately, residents at the Biltmore, like grad student Woodruff, are being politicized, if not radicalized, by the situation. "The problem is, with the 60-day notice they can still raise the rent by $1,000, or whatever they want. We need to use this case as an example. Take this to the state level. Establish rent control."