By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Rather than starting with numbers and trends, this afternoon’s affordable-housing forum at the Senior Center of West Seattle cut directly to the heart of the crisis, with two women telling their stories.
They were introduced by the center’s social worker Holly McNeill: “I’ve had an incredible increase in the number of people coming to me each week telling me they’re homeless, or their apartments are being torn down, or they’re being priced out by the landlord or manager in order to upgrade the apartments and turn them around at twice the amount they’re currently being rented at … it’s just happening to so many people.”
Nancy got two months notice her studio was going up from 650 to 1590 a month. Had to leave. pic.twitter.com/4JdRIlLHF7
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) April 23, 2015
“I lived in a 9-unit mom-and-pop-type apartment complex.” She thought it would “be there forever.” They told her they were selling the building but “selling it to people just like us” – then, “the new owners who came in and bought the building raised the rents anywhere from 130 to 140 percent – “In a studio apartment, my rent went from $650 to $1500 a month” – the audience groans – “Each unit was going to be responsible for the common area utilities like electric and water,” which was another 93/month. They got two months’ notice. “My first reaction was to go into research mode – my kids always say, mom’s on a mission, get out of her way.” She worked to find out, “is this legal … what are our rights … to no avail, really.” She had had surgeries recently, ended up having to take early retirement. “I don’t really have wiggle room to go from $650 to $1590, that’s even more than I make per month.” So she started “an arduous process” to find someplace else to live – “day and night I was on the computer looking for a place to live.” She finally found somewhere, “not my ultimate, ‘isn’t this great,’ but I accomplished my goal. I had to be out on the 28th of February, or else pay $1590 on the first of March for rent. ”
They were going to make some changes, “lipstick on a pig,” she said, but not until the new rent kicked in. She found a two bedroom, one bath apartment with “some guy I don’t know” – she had “a pit in the bottom of my stomach … I took a leap of faith, and moved in, and I’ve been there two months and he decided this month not to pay his rent, and I just found that out two days ago, and I’m going to be homeless again …”
Nancy continued, “The highest I can afford is $650/month – and I guarantee you cannot find anything inside OR outside Seattle – I even searched as far as Bellingham.” Her landlords want to keep her but can’t figure out how. “These are stories that SHOULD NOT BE HAPPENING.”
Diana was renting a room in an Admiral home that was sold to developers. Told to leave so it could be torn down. pic.twitter.com/DZSFxOA9TY
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) April 23, 2015
Next, Diana, who said she considers herself homeless – she is living with her sister and brother-in-law; “if not for them I would be on the street or in Nickelsville.” Previously, she explained, she was renting a room in Admiral; the owner decided she was going to sell the house, didn’t tell the tenants, her or the other two tenants. “She sold the house, sold it as a teardown, sold it to developers – the developers came in, we were not told anything, we were there about a year and we got a 60-day notice we had to be out. We all looked (after the sale) … we could not find anything. To find something you can afford, is unreal. Craigslist .. if you answer anything (there) and say you are retired, you don’t get a callback.”
She continued, “It’s very sad. … I’m not the only one. There are a lot of other people in the area. It’s very frustrating. I don’t know what else to say, because I’m angry. If you ask a question, you don’t even get an answer. You’re made to feel stupid. I’m not stupid.” She said, “I wish we could march on the streets of West Seattle and let people know.”
Then, the trends and advice. Senior Center interim executive director Lyle Evans had introduced them all at the start, before City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen explained that the forum had been in the works for months.
Jennifer LaBrecque from the city Office of Housing spoke first, reviewing rental trends in West Seattle and the rest of the city:
First – “rents over time” – inflation-adjusted. Rents currently average less than $1,300 for 1=bedroom apartments in the larger West Seattle area, less than the citywide average 1-bedroom rent. One line shows The Junction, $1,456/month for 1-bedroom.
Looking at incomes – West Seattle is comparable to the rest of the city, with about 25 percent of people make $35,000 or less per year. Almost half make $75,000 or more. Then a pie chart – housing and income, rent data, almost half the people in West Seattle (and the city in general) are “housing-cost burdened” – housing costs more than 30 percent of their income. 24 percent are paying 20 to 29.9%, 28 percent are paying less than 20 percent.
She shows profiles – a woman who is retired on a fixed income – “household income $14,400, affordable rent would be $360, average studio rent … $1,169 … that’s close to a $700 gap between what they can afford and what they can find.” Then, a couple working part time – combined household income about $26,000, affordable rent would be $668, average rent is $1400 – “another gap.”
For a single person working fulltime and getting paid $30K, rent would be $765 at “affordable,” but $1169 is the reality of a studio.
She showed a slide with what she refers to as rent-restricted housing in WS, both public housing and the Multi-Family Tax Exemption-related units (developers don’t have to pay taxes on the residential construction for 12 years as long as they set aside a certain number of units for lower-income tenants), while cautioning, “for many if not most of these projects, there is a long wait list.”
She mentioned “HousingSearchNW.org“, which has a database among other resources for finding “available units that are affordable.” And she showed a list of homeowner resources – Home Repair Loan Program, HomeWise Weatherization Program, Foreclosure Prevention Resources, Minor Home Repair Program, Utility Discount Program.
Next: Joy Scott from Solid Ground.
She mentioned the Tenant Services Hotline they run three days a week. They offer “information on your rights as a renter under the Landlord Tenant Act,” “discuss your situation and brainstorm actions,” “provide community resources and free legal referrals.”
And then, she offered practical advice:
TOP FIVE TENANT TIPS
*Be proactive – know your rights uner the law and how to assert them
*You must be current in rent in order to assert your rights under the law
*Don’t withhold rent over repairs; the landlord could evict you for not paying your rent
*Communicate with your landlord in writing. Create a file and keep copies of letters, receipts, and notices related to your tenancy
*Read the rental agreement before signing and view the actual unit you will be moving into
She outlined key points of the Fair Tenant Screening Act, outlining what the landlord must provide in writing, and what fees they are allowed to charge – “only charge a screening fee if they have provided written notice of what the screening entails as described; can only charge the actual costs of screening – about $35 to $75.”
They recommend: Minimize your risk of paying a fee and getting denied by knowing what’s on your record adn finding out what the landlord is willing to work with, BEFORE you pay – what might be a cause for denial, for example. If you do get denied – they must give you a “written adverse-action notice stating the reason why” – if that is not provided, you can sue for up to $100 in Small Claims Court, plus court costs and attorneys’ fees.
Common barriers to tenancy: Eviction records – which never come off your record; credit history – check your credit report first – criminal history, and rental history. (Solid Ground, she explains, has a “financial fitness” program helping go over people’s credit reports.)
She goes over pros of month-to-month – pros include easy termination (both sides) but cons include terms including rent increases can be changed with as little as a month’s written notice. “Lease tenancy” – during that time, the terms can’t be changed but it’s a binding contract so if you need to change the terms, it becomes more difficult to exit without fines or penalties.
Security/damage deposits – rental agreement must be in writing including terms/conditions for deposit; walk-through checklist signed and copy to tenant; landlord provides you the name of the bank where the deposit is held in a trust account.
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) April 23, 2015
About rent increases, Scott said:
*To institute a rent increase: A tenancy must be month-to-month or up for renewal
*30 days written notice required, must correspond to start of rental period, usually 1st
*In Seattle, for rent increases of 10 percent or more in a twelve-month period, 60 days written notice is required
*Rent increase cannot be retaliatory
*There is NO rent control in Washington
Other helpful information:
To request repairs:
*Contact your landlord as soon as you notice
*Send request in writing (that does NOT mean e-mail)
*State time frames to begin repairs provided in the law
*Send repair letters by registered mail
Once the landlord receives a written requwst, they must begin to fix the problem within
*24 hours hot/cold water, electricity, heat, imminently hazardous
*72 hours plumbing, ovens, major appliences they supplied
*10 days for other repairs such as pest infestations
Notice to move out:
In month-to-month, 20 days written notice is required; improper notice or not moving out by deadline might cost a tenant an entire month of rent; in Seattle, a landlord cannot terminate a month-to-month tenancy without “Just Cause” – city ordinances cite 18 reasons
Documentation regarding moving out
*Review rental agreement, take pictures when you move in AND move out, communicate with landlord in writing, request receipts/keep copies of all communication, document all damages to the unit, no matter how small
Getting your deposit back
*Landlord has 14 days to refund or send itemized statement saying why any portion of it is being withheld
*If they miss deadline, you’re entitled to get it all back
Mortgage services program
*They can provide general info about foreclosure process, discuss situation/brainstorm actions, provide assistantce in navigating yoru lender’s loan workout process, refer and rep you in mediation with your lender, provide community resources and free legal referrals, provide Home Equity Conversion Mortgage counseling
Number one tip for property owners facing this – OPEN EVERY PIECE OF MAIL YOU GET. She explains “loan modification,” the forms you need, etc.
She says “reverse mortgages” not always the best solution but “does work for some” – available if you are 62 or over. They are not connected to financial institutions but you should attend a counseling session before you get one.
Next, Jake LeBlanc from the Seattle Housing Authority. He says they have 6,000 units and 10,000 vouchers in the city.
Low Income Public Housing program – where residents pay 30 percent of their income – 3200 units around the city, 28 high rises, low income, able to live indpendently, average income $9000, average rent $250. SHA gets a federal subsidy for each unit. Waiting list 1-4 years.
Then the Seattle Senior Housing Program – 23 buildings, 62 and older, all one or two bedrooms, average income $13,000, waiting list 1-3 years. There are rent tiers in this program, Jake says, depending on income.
LIPH West Seattle properties are on this map – Cal-Mor Circle, Westwood Heights (near Roxbury Safeway), Stewart Manor. Westwood is 62 and older, has 135 units, other two have about 75 units. SSHP Wildwood Glen has 24 units, is about 30 years old, near Fauntleroy Ferry. Wait list 2.5 years, maybe 2 vacancies a year.
Le Blanc showed the rent tier graph, and then contact information including Admissions Office who can talk to them about resources, whether their housing or other low-income housing.
Outgoing City Councilmember Sally Clark, who is introduced by Rasmussen as having worked on affordable-housing issues for a long time, talked about “what city is working on internally.” Now she says, Seattle has been a boom-and-bust town for a long time: stories frequently about real-estate money, equity coming from outside, “very technical … but the real impact is the change of rent on what we see are these very attractive properties …” longtime landlords “who cared about our communities … we love our tenants and we’re not interested in making too many changes” – but then eventually properties change hands, like the 140 percent rent increase, “someone has bought and is maximizing their return.” She says the city is thinking more about preservation and how to get more praoctive. The city wants to becompetitive economically AND competitive in maintaining way of life.
She then explained the group “meeting around the Affordable Housing Agenda,” saying they are people from all aspects of the housing situation, “how does the city do better, how do we catch up, close the gaps …” The group is supposed to have recommendations by the end of May.
The two-months notice is someplace where Seattle has gone above and beyond other jurisdictions – but even at that, Clark acknowledged, “with a 140 percent rent increase, what does 60 days get you?” She said she intends to stay involved even after transitioning into her new job with the UW.
First audience question: Do you get on just one waiting list, or multiple? SHA’s LeBlanc said you can get on multiple wait lists – you can apply for both SSPP and LIPH, and can make a choice of which building(s) you’d rather be in. “It’s really important with us that you stay in contact, no matter which waitlist you’re on.”
Second question: What incentives are in the works for affordable housing? Rasmussen mentioned the MFTE – which Clark said had to be renewed by year’s end; she went on to mention “two buckets,” subsidized units and incentive zoning. (None of the latter in WS right now, she noticed.) She also mentioned the linkage fee, which says “when you build a new building, you’re changing the economics of the community – now, everybody else’s property values are going up, it’s gotten more expensive to be in the neighborhood, you probably had to include retail on the ground floor … (the workers in that retail) tend to not be incomes that can afford to live in the building you just built.” So, supporters of the fee contend, the developer should be making a contribution because of all that. “The linkage fee is being studied.”
A man stood up and pointed out that at least 1,000 new housing units are being built all around The Junction. “Are you saying that none of them are going to be low-income housing?”
He was interrupted for a moment by the next question, a man whose wife had a stroke and now they are paying $5,000/month for health care. “What do we do when our money runs out?” One thing he suggested, “get on a waiting list right away.”
Back to the low-income housing, MFTE came up again. No one knew which under-construction buildings were participating. Nancy, who said she was “trying to sit here and not explode,” says she can answer that – she had checked on them all – and mentioned that the “affordable” level is still way out of reach.
Clark said that lawmakers need to be able to help tell stories like the ones we heard here – “we need to make those stories real – Sen. Kohl-Welles’s bill” (should have advanced, but lost traction).
Nancy said extending the time is great, but that doesn’t change the fact the rent would still be unaffordable. “Unless one of you wants to take me home tonight and let me live with you, I’m screwed.”
Questions meandered a bit to the safety of low-income housing and whether pets were allowed.
One woman said that trying to cope with this problem can cause PTSD. “Keep reminding people that it costs so much more to our society to have to remedy the longterm health are or social problem or rehousing people … We all want Seattle to be a wonderful place to live. But 48 percent of us, housing is a burden, a stress in our life. That’s not healthy.”
Another question: What if landlords raise the rent every year, say 10 percent every year? Can we do anything about that? Rasmussen says, yes, they can, under current law. LaBrecque from the Office of Housing said, “We do see that more than we’d like to.”
More questions: What about legislation to standardize the tenant-screening fee and make it affordable? And what about landlords – lots of talk about how renters need to be careful not to screw up, but what about landlords violating lease agreements, say, allowing a pet in what’s supposed to be a pet-free building, where other tenants rented with that expectation?
Rasmussen said he wasn’t sure the screening fee could be standardized/made affordable at a city level – it might be something that the state hasn’t granted authority for them to do. He says he’ll look into it. Second, LaBrecque there’s no central landlord-observing body but the city does have staff that will come out, and you can make a report without providing your specific info. She pointed to a guide to tenants’ rights that has two pages of resources for tenants. (We found some here.) The Washington State Human Rights Commission could help with civil-rights violations at a property, for example, she said.
Another attendee asked about how to organize a group in a building that could have an impact on the building environment – in her building, for example, someone decided they wanted no pictures on the wall. “I’m sorry to bring this up when people are dealing with having a roof over their head, but sometimes that roof can feel like a prison,” she said. Solid Ground’s Scott suggested going to the Tenants’ Union.
From another attendee, the law regarding parking requirements in a building. “I live in senior housing, my life is literally directed about whether i can be home before 3 or I do not have a place on my street close to my apartment to park. I am a heart patient. I have sometimes had to walk half a mile.” She says that some neighbors cancel their health appointments if they’re going to get home after 4:30 pm because they can’t walk safely to their apartments.
Rasmussen explains the frequent-transit-service reason, and acknowledges the transit service doesn’t meet everyone’s needs. He then explains the cost to developers and cites $30,000-$40,000/parking space, and that the cost of the building affects the rent that will be charged. He also mentions a lot of pressure, strong sentiment to not require parking. “Where’s the pressure for not requiring parking?” asks a woman. “From the developers,” answers Rasmussen, “and from those who are advocating for affordable housing.” He says in some areas, like Capitol Hill, parking spaces are built in buildings and not used.
Wrapping up the forum, Evans said that the center has a bulletin board if someone wants to share a room or offer a room. It’s an unofficial way to coordinate, so drop by the center – “the home-sharing thing might be an immediate fix for some of you.”
No solutions – but a lot of resources.