Located just off Madison Street, where Madison Valley, Capitol Hill, and the Central District converge, the Prince of Wales is a deeply charming brick apartment building that seems as if it's been around longer than anyone can remember. "Supposedly, it used to be a hospice," says Katherine Lind, a 14-year resident. She adds, "Charlton Heston lived here for a time, when he went to Cornish. That's what I heard, God knows if it's true." ("It's true," says a different resident. "It was his cold-water flat.")
For a long time, the Prince's owner kept rents low, and Lind says that the units were generally "filled with quirky creative-type people" who shared holiday meals, while the backyard garden and picnic tables instilled a community vibe. Although the neighborhood is quiet today, things were different a few years ago, Lind says. "We lived through the hell of it. All the hookers and drugs and gunplay and dogs barking and shit. And the drunk motherfuckers singing. Oh, how I hated them. It was like 300 people were in my living room," she says, gesturing right outside her window to where the dive bar Deano's/Chocolate City and bar/karaoke venue the Twilight Exit formerly stood (and other bars before that). Today, the plot sits vacant, though four town houses are scheduled for construction.
Nearby, a Safeway, a Starbucks, and a Subway occupy the ground floor of a multistory residential complex that is so sprawling and beige-colored and aggressively nondescript that it actually seems profane. "I watched it going up. The workers just didn't stop. It was like a giant marshmallow that kept getting bigger and bigger," Lind says.
I'm talking with Lind in her apartment. It's a pleasant space with high ceilings and wood floors, but she won't be living here much longer. Rents at the Prince are suddenly skyrocketing. While previous rates for its studios and one-bedroom units ranged from $600 to $900 a month, the new owners are jacking up rents an extra $315 to $670 a month. That's 45 to 90 percent. Many tenants, such as Lind, say they can't afford to stay. At $350 more per month, her increase is 44 percent.
This all began on October 16, when a development company called Briarbox purchased the Prince of Wales and hired management company Pacific Living Properties (PLP). Since then, PLP has distributed notices every month announcing that rents will increase in 60 days. About 15 units have received notices so far, though not everyone's been hit. Some wait for the inevitable; others relocate of their own accord. But the building is quickly emptying. Of 32 units, 20 will be vacant by February.
"It's sad. You're leaving your home, you're leaving your neighborhood, you're leaving your family," says 23-year resident Butch Rogers, who is retired but covers on-call shifts as an inspector for the Department of Agriculture. He says he must relocate after receiving a $670 rent hike, a 92 percent increase.
I'm a tenant here, too. PLP directly involved me in this struggle when I received an increase notice of $580 for my one-bedroom unit, which currently rents for $815—a 71 percent jump I can't afford.
So why the huge rent hike?
"This outskirted Capitol Hill area is going through a development boom, and meanwhile, Prince tenants aren't paying comparable market rents," says PLP regional manager Jason Alldredge during a telephone interview. "This is a building that's underperforming because the electrical system is bad, the plumbing is horrible, the meters in the basement are old, the mortar is falling apart. From a structural standpoint, the building is not functioning as it should. And, with all the work we're doing, we might as well go in and bring up the aesthetics, too," says Alldredge. Which is to say that the new owners are remodeling the building's systems and its appearance, which cost money and allow them to charge more per unit.
Thanks to all the construction under way, even tenants who haven't (yet) had a rent hike, such as 17-year resident Jeanne Ferraro, experience vibrating floors, droning mechanical sounds, and workers everywhere. "I'm moving out. I can't take this. They've started construction all around me," she says.
There is more unpleasantness. In my case, for instance, the company scheduled my rent increase to begin a couple of months before my one-year lease expired. I understood it to be a violation of tenant-rights laws, so I contested it. After I provided PLP with a copy of my lease, they dropped the hike (for now, anyway). But PLP issued rent-increase notices to three other tenants also protected by leases, and as I say to Alldredge, "This gives the impression you're testing to see what you'll get away with."
Paperwork mix-ups caused these oversights, Alldredge says. "When the building was transitioned to us, not all the [lease] documents were in order. We had to do a lot of weeding through. Ideally, we would've been handed an organized filing cabinet, but it didn't work out that way, and that's unfortunate," he says. "We know you guys are taking it personally, but please don't."
"It's not that I'm taking it personally," I say. "I thought it was a violation of tenant law to raise rents during a fixed lease's term."
"It's really unfortunate. I'm sorry for that. And it hits home because it's your home," Alldredge says. His tone suggests that the response is supposed to be reassuring.
It isn't, but now let's focus on the rent increase, which is totally legal.
"It's manifestly unfair to tenants, but there's nothing that prevents it in the law," says Jim Metz, the housing ordinance supervisor for the City of Seattle. "State law specifically prohibits any form of rent control," Metz says, and when tenants are not protected by a lease, owners "can make any rent increase they want, as long as they give tenants 60 days written notice of any increase in housing costs" of 10 percent or more in a 12-month period.
After forcing out tenants, property managers like PLP can swiftly rehabilitate the vacant units, which costs them significantly less time and money than it would to follow the terms of the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance, which requires the property manager and the city to provide relocation-assistance payments for low-income tenants being displaced.
But the Prince doesn't officially qualify as low-income housing, according to PLP, so they're not mandated to do this. So I ask Alldredge if it was his goal to create vacancies by raising rents, essentially forcing out the old tenants so that management can begin extensive interior remodels.
"It's something that needs to get done," he argues. "It does require vacancy. But it's a process that's happening throughout Seattle. We're not the only ones doing it."
Still, it seems ethically questionable to buy a property and raise the rent so high that the artists, writers, seamstresses, music teachers, retirees, and caregivers who live there—the sort of people who bring texture to the neighborhood—can no longer afford to stay.
"We're not putting a personal spin on this," says Alldredge. "This is a business, and our long-term goal is to beautify and upgrade the building. Difficult decisions have to be made to get there."
Appalled and tired, nine-year resident Alicia Bennett is moving to Beacon Hill. She hasn't received a rent-increase notice, but her asthma has recently worsened and she blames the dust from perpetual construction. "The new owners are gonna win. I know that," she says. "They'll do whatever it takes to get their way, and then they'll rent the units for an obscene amount of money."