Shindo Salad likes living in the Lake Washington Apartments. Her rent is affordable and she feels safe even though the police show up a lot. What she can't tolerate is that managers decided several months ago to lock the gate closest to her apartment. Salad is disabled and, with the gate locked, it takes her an hour to walk the long way around to the grocery store. Or, she can fold up her walker and awkwardly squeeze herself through the gap in the fence on South Henderson Street where the high-school students slip through, too. Like 150 other Lake Washington renters, this summer Salad got fed up with management and joined an Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) organized tenants' union. Lefty ACORN, usually fighting condo-crazy developers, city hall, and the SPD, is at odds with an unusual opponent: SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), which owns the 366-unit subsidized apartment complex. ACORN and SEED, an affordable housing nonprofit which has poured more than $150 million into developing Rainier Valley (one-bedroom units in Lake Washington rent for as low as $600 a month), usually find themselves on the same side of the battle lines. But at Lake Washington, ACORN has a page-long list of grievances with the way things are run.
Since the call boxes on the outside of the apartment units were removed a couple months ago, ACORN organizer Alex King taps on tenants' windows to see if they're home, or, if they live on a second story, shouts their names from the stoop. On September 8, King and the Lake Washington tenants coordinated a meeting with SEED and property-management company AF Evans to address problems with the apartments. Safety is most tenants' main concern—police responded to Lake Washington 90 times in June and just weeks ago, tenants say, a man was jumped and his legs broken outside the management office. But the list of concerns tenants presented at the meeting range from sanitation issues ("poop and pee in the laundry [room] and stairs") to "racism from management."
"They said that they were going to make the corrections and would start working on them," says King. But since the meeting, improvements in manager-tenant communication and the facility itself have been patchy at best.
"Some say it's getting better, but most say it's not doing enough," says Frances Johnson, who rents a three-bedroom apartment and helped mobilize the union over the summer. Johnson walks a short way from her apartment to the infamous laundry room, which used to be so filthy she would tell her kids to keep away. "It's cleaner, except for the graffiti on the ground," she says.
Everywhere around the apartments, there are small improvements that haven't gone far enough. Along one wall, management dealt with graffiti by spray-painting white over the words, leaving large blotches across the brown siding. The new management has increased security, but the guards only work during the day and patrol around the units only "sporadically," according to tenants.
Kris Jones runs a Head Start preschool at the apartments and spent the morning of Monday, October 23, cleaning up glass around the shattered front window of the preschool. "This happened Saturday and nobody reported it," Jones says, "If security had actually been walking around and checking, they would have noticed a big hole in the window and door." According to Jones, who regularly clears beer bottles, drug paraphernalia, and condoms from the preschool playground, the management is usually unresponsive to her complaints. "We contacted [SEED] via e-mail and phone," says Jones. "They never return phone calls."
On Friday, October 20, King and 10 tenants protested outside the SEED office on Rainier Avenue South, wearing bright-red ACORN shirts, handing out fliers and demanding a firm timeline for fixing Lake Washington's crime, graffiti, and gates.
Priscilla Call, asset manager for SEED, emphasizes that her group would rather take time to fix the apartments' problems than do a fast and sloppy job. "We are doing everything we can to address the issues at Lake Washington. We are holding our property-management company to its commitment, but some of these improvements take time." Call says SEED promises to invest $400,000 in the apartment complex, installing a wrought-iron gate, hiring a new security company, and placing a camera and security booth at the main entrance. When asked if ACORN had been talking with SEED, Call replied, "They've been talking at us."