Firefighters spent much of the morning of Sept. 1 fighting off a two-alarm fire at a long-vacant building near the corner of 17th Avenue SW and SW 98th Street in Seattle’s White Center neighborhood.
It is the second time the building, once Atlas Electric, has caught fire in two years. The last time, in October 2019, firefighters ruled it arson.
Homes to the west evacuated and reporters advised their audiences to avoid that area. The neighboring business, Gerber Collision & Glass, closed to assess possible damage. Employees of the nearby dental office, hands in mouths at the time, stopped their work and evacuated.
By evening, the vacant building was merely charred debris.
While the building is currently not in commercial use, many locals responding to the story online believe that people were living there.
The building sits between an auto shop and complex with a Merry Maids on the lower level and dental office above. All three businesses confirmed that people were living on the lot.
The real estate agent who last sold the building estimates it has been out of commercial use for four or five years. It sold in July 2018 and February 2019, then after the fire in October 2019 and again in February 2021, when it was listed as a plot of land.
“They were gonna tear it down, but now they’ll have to scoop it up,” said Jeff Saily of Merry Maids, who was recently asked to trim the tree branches that extend over property lines so the building could be removed.
Ben Richardson, an employee at the dentist office, said that folks have been living there for years.
The three nearest businesses all told Real Change that activity in the lot had picked up in the last month.
In the last few weeks, Saily noticed residents of the lot made a hole in the building and were living inside. This is commonly referred to as “squatting,” meaning someone inhabits private property that they do not own without permission.
Washington state law grants squatters certain rights: Squatters are legally allowed to live in another person’s property if the owner does not take the legal steps to force the eviction process. Squatters can even claim legal ownership of a property through adverse possession after living at the property for 10 years.
According to an employee at Gerber Collision & Glass, the business called the police four or five times to report what looked to be the beginnings of an encampment. During this time, the shop also had issues with car windows being smashed.
Richardson said the dental office also had a window smashed in the last few weeks, but is unsure if the incident is related.
According to a fact sheet prepared by the Washington State Department of Commerce, unhoused folks are no more likely to commit a crime than a housed person, with the exception of camping ordinances, which in effect criminalize living outside. An unhoused person is more likely to be a victim of a violent crime than a housed person, especially if they are a woman or child.
“We wanted it gone, but not like this,” Saily said.
Employees at Merry Maids were told of the fire on an early morning smoke break in the front parking lot and said they had not seen anyone leave the building.
Since the fire, none of the businesses have seen anyone return to the building. There were no paramedics, Richardson said, and firefighters on the scene report that no one was hurt.
“Hopefully everyone’s alright,” Richardson said of the residents squatting next door.
Real Change contacted several organizations that do homelessness outreach in White Center. None of them knew if they had served folks who lived in that building.
As of August, firefighters had responded to 738 fires at encampments, according to city data, which is more than on pace to break the record set in 2020 of 825.
According to The Seattle Times, Seattle built more apartments than nearly any other metro area in the country, but one in 10 of the units are empty.
In June 2019, about 1,200 vacant buildings were on the city’s Vacant Building Monitoring Program. The 2020 Point-in-Time Count for Seattle and King County found 11,751 people experiencing homelessness on one night in January, with 53% sheltered and 47% unsheltered.
Read more of the Sept. 8-14, 2021 issue.