Highland Park Tenants Displaced; Sound Transit Neighborhood Forum; Parking in the West Seattle Junction; Vacating Marijuana Convictions

20 Tenant Households Displaced in Highland Park

Last Wednesday, while I was walking from my house to the Highland Park Action Council (HPAC) meeting I noticed one of the large apartment buildings in my neighborhood was boarded up.  I didn’t know why that had happened, and because I work hard to keep up on what is going on in my District, and especially my neighborhood, I was feeling disappointed in myself for not being aware that a new major development was apparently occurring just two blocks away from my home.   But then, during the meeting with HPAC, one of the attendees mentioned that the very building I had noticed on my walk to the meeting had been recently cleared by the landlord of all its tenants and some of them had become homeless as a result.

This immediately alarmed me because the City of Seattle has, since the 1980s, had a Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance (TRAO) that gives renters at least 90 days’ notice and financial moving assistance whenever a building is going to be renovated, demolished, or if there’s a change of use.  It was immediately apparent to me that there was no way that the legal process for the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance (TRAO) could have occurred so quickly and I became worried that people had been improperly displaced.  On my way home that evening, I walked around the perimeter of the building and indeed, it was apparent that all but a couple of the units were vacant.

When I got home that evening, I looked up the address on the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) website to see what development activity was planned at the site. But there were no planned development activities associated with TRAO or a demolition, renovation, or change of use associated with the address. This further confirmed my suspicion that renters in the building had been improperly forced to move.  The next morning, I contacted SDCI and asked them to send an inspector out to the property.

I am saddened to report that I learned yesterday that SDCI has found that the tenants in the building recently had received a 100% rent increase and that this increase led to 20 of the 23 households being displaced from the building. Again, I’ve been told by my neighbors that several of these households are now homeless.  This is, I believe, a shameful result and an abuse of a landlord’s right to increase rent free from any regulation.

The TRAO says that it is unlawful for landlords to use excessive rent increases to circumvent the requirements for 90 days’ notice and access to moving expenses assistance.  But, there is no limit to how much a landlord can raise the rent. You see, the TRAO entitles low income renters who must move because of renovations to money to help them pay their moving costs ($3188).  But if a tenant moves because of a big rent increase, they won’t get the assistance.

Not only do rent increases in Seattle lead the nation, but some rent increases are actually used to circumvent other tenant protections such as the TRAO. In 2014, Councilmember Nick Licata brought attention to the fact that “each year more and more tenants find out they were deprived of critical relocation assistance following a massive rent hike due to loop holes created by state law” and that some property owners do this as a regular business practice.  You may remember the story of the Lockhaven Apartments and the Prince of Wales. In 2014 and again in 2015, State Senators David Frockt (46th District) and then State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (36th District) introduced legislation to disincentive for the practice of using rent increases to circumvent TRAO.

A number of landlords and their lobbyist testified against the bill, and it did not pass the State Legislature, so in response, Councilmember Licata worked to amend Seattle’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance (TRAO) to help tenants deprived of relocation assistance and 90 days’ notice to move that they would have otherwise received if their landlord followed TRAO instead of displacing them with a large rent increase.  Specifically, the law prohibited rent increases for the purpose of avoiding the required Tenant Relocation Assistance process. If a landlord increases rent by 20 percent or more, which results in a tenant vacating a unit within 90 days, then applies for a permit to substantially rehabilitate the unit within 6 months, the owner can have their building permit denied until the owner pays the penalties. Penalties are $1,000 per day for each day from the date the violation began.  The change Councilmember Licata made to the law has helped a lot of people, see this article from March, where under the new TRAO law, SDCI was able to require a landlord to pay $168,268 in relocation payments to 46 households that were living at 104 Pine St.

But somehow, and sadly, people who want to avoid their obligations seem to manage to find new loopholes as soon as you close one set of loopholes.  The owner of this property that has displaced 20 Highland Park household with a 100% rent increase found yet another loophole in TRAO.  From SDCI’s investigation we have learned that the property was purchased in January 2018 and the new owners, after the rent increase of nearly 100%, and after 20 tenant households vacated as a result of the rent increases, is now doing a rehabilitation that includes painting the exterior, painting interior units, tearing out carpeting and replacing some appliances. None of this work requires that the owner obtain a permit and it does not meet the definition of substantial rehabilitation (which requires work of $6000 or more per unit).

I am thankful that SDCI is continuing to investigate and will be requesting the owner sign a certification that the rent increase was not for the purpose of avoiding application of TRAO.  If people are in touch with the displaced renters, please encourage them to contact me so that I can put them in touch with SDCI for purposes of this on-going investigation.

Reminder: Sound Transit Neighborhood Forum Saturday morning (May 5th)

Sound Transit will hold a West Seattle Neighborhood Forum this Saturday, May 5, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Alki Masonic Center at 4736 40th Avenue SW.

The meeting will include a presentation of the early options Sound Transit has analyzed in “Level 1,” which include elevated and tunnel alignments. It’s your chance to weigh in on these proposed options or suggest additional changes or refinements.

On May 17, the Elected Leadership Group will make recommendations on what Sound Transit should study in further detail in “Level 2.” Level 2 will include greater detail, as well as cost estimates.

Here’s a link to the West Seattle options Sound Transit analyzed in Round 1; here’s a link to Sound Transit’s summary of the options, and recommendations of Sound Transit’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAG).   Here’s background information about how Sound Transit is developing options.

I support moving tunnel options forward for consideration in Level 2.

RPZ Results for the West Seattle Junction

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has completed its study of a potential Residential Parking Zone (RPZ) in the area around commercial portion the West Seattle Junction. The request for the study came from the Junction Neighborhood Organization (JuNO).

The study found some areas met the criteria for an RPZ: 20 contiguous block faces (i.e. one side a block) that are 75% filled with vehicles, with 35% of the vehicles belong to non-residents.

Here’s a link to SDOT’s recent presentation and handout at JuNO, which includes the results of the study, and background information about RPZs. The RPZ study request came from JuNO.

Next steps include additional community outreach before developing a proposal, and a public hearing to consider it.   Information about Residential Parking Zones is available here; here’s information about the parking study for commercial areas in the West Seattle Junction.

City Attorney Files Motion to Vacate Marijuana Possession Convictions

City Attorney Holmes has filed a motion to dismiss marijuana possession convictions for people who were convicted between 1997 and 2010. This could affect up to 542 people, if the motion is accepted by Municipal Court.

After the passage of state initiative 501, possession was no longer illegal, beginning in December 2012.

I thank the City Attorney for this action. As the filing notes, marijuana possession laws had a disproportionate impact; African-Americans were 3.7 times as likely to be arrested than Caucasians, even though the groups consume marijuana at similar rates. The motion further notes that possession offenses can “have significantly negative collateral consequences affecting a person’s employment opportunities, education options, qualification for government benefits and programs, and immigration status.”

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