If you’ve gone to a protest, a rally or almost any event meant to boost the public good, you’ve probably seen Carl Nakajima. Nakajima is a diminutive man, usually wearing a cap with a thick black rim and a bulky, Technicolor dream coat, most recently topped with a bright green Real Change vendor vest. He lends his often-quiet support to community causes by doing what any good ally does: show up.
Nakajima is a thoughtful person, calm and collected. He shrugs off things that would drive most people to distraction if not outright despair. That’s how he presented when he described losing his housing.
“I’ll try and overnight it,” Nakajima said, as though he were musing over breakfast options at a mediocre diner, never quite finding the right dish, but not feeling the need to put up a fuss about it. “Maybe St. Martin. Maybe a camp.”
Nakajima has lived in an apartment building called the Fenimore Hotel on the 500 block of Broadway near Swedish Medical Center for nearly 15 years. The building, originally constructed in 1908, was family-owned until 2017 when Linda Onishi sold the property to 510 Broadway Partners LLC for $4.5 million. It’s destined to become workforce housing, intended for people making 50-to-120 percent of the area median income, or $33,600 and $75,600, according to developer Brad Padden.
“It’s not the lowest of the low, but it’s still an area of housing in the missing middle, and it will take the load off of other housing types,” Padden said.
Other tenants have had difficulty finding new apartments, Nakajima said, even with the relocation money mandated by the city of Seattle— $3,658, half paid by the city and half by the property owner.
That’s too rich for Carl’s blood. Like the previous owner, the new manager has allowed Nakajima to live there for free in exchange for help with cleaning and maintenance. But that arrangement will end no later than May, and then Nakajima will have to find somewhere else to go. Other tenants have had difficulty finding new apartments, Nakajima said, even with the relocation money mandated by the city of Seattle— $3,658, half paid by the city and half by the property owner.
Even that sum gets you only so far in Seattle, where landlords can demand good credit, first and last month’s rent and proof of an income stream sufficient to uphold a lease on top of high rental prices.
As Seattle’s leadership mulls a way out of its homelessness crisis, naturally affordable housing like the Fenimore Hotel are lost to the pressures of market forces and the need for places that middle-income people can afford. And it’s people like Nakajima who get displaced.
Battling decay and entropy
Padden, for his part, knows that the situation at the Fenimore isn’t great. But neither is the building itself.
At 110 years, the Fenimore is showing its age. Photos included with the new building plans show holes in walls with plaster falling off. The basement is filled with 50 tons of junk that accumulated over the past 70 years, Padden reported, and much of the existing building is unused.
It’s also built using unreinforced masonry, a style popular in Seattle in the wake of the city’s Great Fire of 1889 that burned its central business district in Pioneer Square to the ground. At the turn of the 20th century, the brick structures were deemed an upgrade from the flammable clapboard of the past, but in reality, developers traded one disaster for another.
Unreinforced masonry is unlikely to withstand the force of a major earthquake like the one predicted to smash the Pacific Northwest sometime between now and 2200, and the city is on a mission to make structures like the Fenimore seismically fit, an expensive endeavor that hasn’t made much progress in part because of the cost.
Padden’s business model takes that into account; his company has purchased and rehabbed three such buildings in the city, he said. He plans to retrofit the building, reactivate the space lost to deterioration and add a fifth floor. Doing so will more than double the number of apartments from 38 to 83, each of which will have a toilet and a shower. Right now, 20 units share two toilets and two showers on each floor.
But the changes will be expensive — too expensive to cater to the zero-to-30 percent area median income that Seattle, like all major cities, sorely needs for its low-income population.
“It’s really impossible to build housing these days at a price that can address the zero-to-30 percent without some sort of subsidy,” Padden said.
The smallest will rent at $1,100 per month for 200 square feet — to cater to students, traveling medical professionals or first-time job holders.
He plans for the units — the smallest will rent at $1,100 per month for 200 square feet — to cater to students, traveling medical professionals or first-time job holders. The leases can last as little as three months in an attempt to accommodate a more transient workforce.
“We’re trying to create a place in the market where we can do good while doing well,” Padden said. “We’re really trying to balance that.”
The argument that $1,100 is affordable to students and first-time job holders doesn’t fly with Violet Lavatai, interim executive director at the Tenants Union, an advocacy group for renters.
"Seattle is sounding like San Francisco all over again.”
“How do [tenants] protect themselves from owners like this developer?” Lavatai asked. “Every developer right now wants a piece of Seattle. We have to start utilizing ordinances to protect tenants. It’s got so outrageous. Seattle is sounding like San Francisco all over again.”
Seattle has a number of tenant protections that Lavatai applauds, including the relocation assistance that Nakajima and other low-income tenants received to move out of the building. More, including a prohibition on checking criminal histories outside of specific circumstances, are coming online in 2018.
But she wants to see more options that can cushion tenants from hikes in rent like those she sees displacing families and community members.
She was also skeptical of the target audience for the redeveloped Fenimore.
“What do students live on? Absolutely nothing,” Lavatai said. “We’re going to have this for people in nursing and they can barely make it.”
In the end it will fall on state legislators and city officials to allow and enact policies such as rent regulation that can protect communities from displacement, Lavatai said.
Perhaps ironically, city officials’ past attempts to protect renters are in part to blame for the reduction in naturally affordable housing.
Sinan Demeril has studied the history of Seattle’s housing stock for years. For nearly the entirety of the 20th century, buildings like the Fenimore that offered “single-occupancy residences” (SRO) — small units without kitchens and bathroom facilities — and flophouses dominated the affordable housing landscape.
Managers advertised “good rooms, clean halls, safe, NO cooking” for up to $225 per month in 1980. A cheaper option had “housekeeping rms and small apartments, rat/roach nest” on offer for $90 to $130 per month. The facilities weren’t grand, but they catered to temporary workers who needed, in the words of actor and author Sterling Hayden, “A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in — and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment.”
Then came the fire at the Ozark Hotel.
“It’s not like this even caused everything, but it was so emblematic of what happened,” Demeril said.
The Ozark Hotel was wood-framed. One night, an arsonist lit fire to the stairwells at either end of the building, and 21 people died. It was the deadliest fire in Seattle’s history.
The fire led to changes in the fire code, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s Seattle found itself flooded with urban renewal money that popped off a redevelopment of the downtown. And perhaps that would have been a good end to the story, but those federal dollars didn’t replace that housing — just eliminated it, Demeril said.
“Definitely, there needed to be work done on these buildings, but it became an excuse,” he said.
If they mandate such repairs, developers are likely to knock down the buildings and create something new, driving up the prices even more.
The circumstances are not so different today. The city knows that unreinforced masonry buildings are dangerous and wants them retrofitted. But officials also know that if they mandate such repairs, developers are likely to knock down the buildings and create something new, driving up the prices even more.
In a 2014 report on unreinforced masonry buildings, the then-Department of Planning and Development noted as much.
“Ironically, this analysis shows that if the city were to require retrofits there is a very real risk of losing more [unreinforced masonry buildings] to owner demolition than to earthquakes,” the report reads.
And while Seattle officials have moved forward slowly on dulling the double-edged sword of unreinforced masonry buildings, Demeril argues that other policies enacted to attract businesses have served to kill affordable housing in the meantime.
“All of the infrastructure that we build to attract businesses and development will result in the loss of the last of our affordable low-income housing,” Demeril said. “The city’s own policies are accelerating this process.”
Where can low-income residents go?
Whether or not business and economic development are at the root of Seattle’s affordability problem, buildings like the Fenimore Hotel are going away. Another property near Belltown called Kasota Apartments offered SROs at cheap rates until it was bought by a mental-health care provider, ending in the exodus of former tenants, at least one of whom became homeless for a time as a result. Even older buildings see double-digit rent increases, squeezing people in well-paying jobs who don’t have many other options if they want to stay in the core of the city.
As for the residents of the Fenimore, they will take their $3,658 and go on the hunt for a new place. Nakajima isn’t confident of their success.
“Some people are happy because of the cash,” Nakajima said. “Some are not happy because they don’t know where to move to.
“There’s no low-income housing,” he said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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