In 2013, Goodman Real Estate purchased Lockhaven Apartments, a 65-year-old, 12-building complex in Ballard that residents grew to love for its unique architecture and surprisingly affordable rents, especially for a neighborhood that was getting more expensive all the time.
People paid $700 to $900 a month for the privilege to live in 1940s architecture on a landscape dotted with gardens, benches and old clotheslines. It wasn’t even subsidized housing, just one rare affordable place to live in an area where, on average, people need to make $27 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual Out of Reach study.
But soon they learned that the units would be remodeled, and rents would rise to $1,500 for a one-bedroom unit.
The Seattle City Council is considering legislation now that could give places like Lockhaven a chance to remain affordable.
Councilmember Tim Burgess is shepherding the bill, completing the work that Councilmember Sally Clark had started before resigning from her position to take a job with the University of Washington.
The bill requires owners of affordable multi-family complexes to notify the city and the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) 15 days before putting a property up for sale. The notice gives the two agencies time to put together a proposal to purchase the property and preserve it as affordable housing.
Burgess is sponsoring a separate bill requiring landlords to give tenants 90-days notice for no-fault evictions — which occurs when tenants are being evicted because landlords are moving themselves or a family member into a property or they are selling a single-family home. This proposal would not have changed Lockhaven’s fate.
Proponents of the bill, including Burgess, say that these proposals are small changes that can make a big difference to tenants in Seattle, where rent has grown massively over the past few years and buildings such as Lockhaven are being purchased and remodeled for a higher rent.
“It’s not a panacea, but it’s intended to give the city a leg up,” Burgess said at a city council meeting June 4.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant said it was a small step in the right direction, but more was needed.
“These bills, while they’re great, are really only the very beginning of what the council needs to do,” she said.
Housing advocates have also said a major shift is needed to stem the tide of rising housing prices.
“They don’t go far enough,” said Liz Etta, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington. “We want tenants to reach out to policy makers and let them know that this is not going to meet their needs.”
According to Dupree + Scott, an apartment research company, there have already been 62 buildings sold in Seattle. There were 184 in 2014 and 166 in 2013.
If this proposal passes, it would apply to any building sold that has five or more units and at least one affordable unit in the building based on figures set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Less than $1,100 for a studio apartment, $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,480 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Critics of the plan say the notification period is too short, and that the legislation should be revised to give the city right-of-first refusal on the sale of affordable housing.
Etta of the Tenants Union said other cities with similar proposals require property owners to notify the city sooner. But even still, the city or SHAwould need to have enough money to purchase a building. SHA is already struggling financially, as indicated by its now-shelved Stepping Forward plan, which would have set stair-stepped rents on eligible tenants, meaning they increase every couple of years.
“The Seattle Housing Authority is pretty strapped for cash,” Etta said. “Notifying them of the sale of a building — I don’t know how effective that will be.”
Michelle Kinnucan, a former Lockhaven resident, was doubtful that such legislation would have made a difference for her and the many other residents who no longer live in the complex following the sale.
“There’s no money for it,” she said. “There’s nothing in place, so I don’t think the 15 days is nearly enough time to put together a financing plan and to organize tenants and everything else to pull everything together.”
On the whole, Kinnucan found this bill and the companion piece requiring 90 days notice for no fault evictions a “paltry” effort.
Burgess conceded that the 15 days is a short amount of time, but added, “it does give us a bit of a leg up to become engaged.”
He said that a more proactive system that engages with property owners earlier might be necessary.
“What’s really become clear to us as we’ve discussed this legislation, is that the city should have a much more proactive effort around preserving affordable housing in multi-family buildings,” he said.
Burgess is working on getting the legislation passed, but the bills rest in John Okamoto’s Committee on Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency. Okamoto has said that he does not want to move forward with these bills until Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee has completed its work. The HALA committee is bringing a set of recommendations to solve Seattle’s rising housing costs at the end of June. Murray told the group to find solutions that would produce a net increase of 20,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years.
Sawant, a member of Okamoto’s committee, urged swifter action and said she was doubtful that a committee that includes private developers would produce meaningful results.
“While I would be thrilled if the HALA came up with bolder solutions than the council came up with, I don’t think that’s a very likely scenario,” she said. “So I think that the council as the elected body of the city should definitely have a sense of urgency to solve the housing crisis.”