Rich House, Poor House -- Rules Strap Those Who Can Afford To Live On Eastside
What comes to mind when you hear the word "eggplant"?
For the Trettevik family of Issaquah, it is a vegetable: perhaps one they will plant in the first garden of the first home they never dreamed of owning.
For the Jones family of Redmond, it is the color of contention: the shade they chose to paint the window frames and gutters of their home - a choice that has resulted in a legal tussle with their homeowners association that has cost them more in lawyers' fees than what the Tretteviks will pay in mortgage for the next two years.
The two very different senses of the word eggplant neatly reflect two extremes in the polarized Eastside housing market. On one extreme, there is the increasing number of developments that are turning to restrictive covenants to protect a certain lifestyle. On the other extreme, there is the increasing number of people - even middle-class people, people who work on the Eastside - who cannot afford to live here.
It is a trend, some feel, that reflects style over sustenance.
"Some people have lost track of what a home is for, and what society should be doing to ensure that everybody who wants one, has one," said Bob Patterson, chairman of Habitat for Humanity of East King County, which built the Trettevik home with volunteer labor for $50,000.
Last year, the Multi Service Center of North and East King County placed 500 people in motels because they couldn't keep up with the mortgage or rent. The agency put 500 others in emergency shelters and provided financial assistance to another 1,900 who were in danger of losing the place they called home.
"The gap is widening, and that's frightening to see," said Jan Dickerman, who manages the agency's housing programs. "We're seeing more families in desperate, desperate need."
There are now 200 low-income families on the Eastside on an 18-month waiting list for subsidized housing through the King County Housing Authority, according to manager Charles Biggers.
Most of these families have jobs but they are paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent, or, like Robyn Blunt of Redmond, living in quarters far too small for her family.
Blunt, a single mother, has been on the waiting list two years. Her three daughters share a single bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment. The girls' room is so crammed the children have to change their clothes in the hallway. There is no place - inside or outdoors - for them to play.
Not all those who can't afford housing are poor.
Real-estate agent Cindy Silverstein isn't having any luck finding a house for a successful college-educated Eastside businesswoman and her two children. The average house on the Eastside sells for $212,000, and the woman can spend no more than $135,000.
"She works over here, but she can't afford to live here," said Silverstein. "I'm not going to tell her go live in Auburn, then commute an hour to work each way. She's a single mother. What happens if one of her children get sick?"
And then there are those who can afford a home but do not want to pay the price of conformity.
Lee and Barbara Jones live in English Hills development of Redmond. Like a dozen other local developments, and countless cul-de-sacs, English Hills has covenants, including a rule that homeowners submit paint colors to an architectural review committee for approval.
After using an unapproved eggplant shade of paint for the trim on their home, the Joneses were sued by the association in 1991. Lee Jones later submitted his colors, but the architectural committee rejected them, he said. In the lengthy ensuing litigation, the Joneses have paid $6,000 to a lawyer, their checking account was seized and Barbara Jones' wages were garnished.
The homeowners' association, which would not disclose its legal fees, ultimately prevailed in court. The association has approved Victoria blue for the house, and either velvet tulip or sweet william (both shades of purple) for the trim.
There are plenty of other examples around the Eastside. In Klahanie, one homeowner converted his garage into a den. That was allowable, but the man broke the rules when he installed French doors. They had to be removed.
And although there have been no significant squabbles to date, the residents of the new, spendy Broadhurst development near Redmond might want to put on their reading glasses before attempting any remodeling: Their covenants are a marathon 16 pages long and include restrictions on the shape and size of driveways, the use of aluminum windows, and paint in "dark, bold or extremely bright tones." Eggplant need not apply.
Covenants, set by developers to maintain consistency and property values, provide a simple, legal means to prevent an unreasonable blight on the neighborhood. If you've ever had neighbors who don't mow the lawn or who turn the street into a halfway home for disabled El Caminos, you'd probably welcome a written requirement that they clean up the mess.
Doreen Marchione,former Redmond mayor and now executive director of the Multi Service Centers, said covenants in themselves are not necessarily disturbing. But she would prefer that homeowners concern themselves with improving their community, rather than bickering over minutiae.
"What comes to mind is the thousands of dollars spent battling these issues," she said. "Too bad these people can't declare a truce and donate the money to help somebody."
Of course, restrictive covenants aren't responsible for the shortage of affordable housing. Even if people stopped hiring lawyers to fight battles over paint colors, the money saved wouldn't go to moderately priced apartments.
But those familiar with the pressures of the Eastside market suggest that there's a relationship between a desire to protect an expensive investment and the shortage of affordable housing.
The Eastside lacks affordable housing for several reasons. First, developable land is scarce, and therefore, expensive. And developers have long argued that King County's slow, cumbersome permit process exacerbates the problem.
But beyond that are the NIMBY battles - the `Not in my back yard' fights against anything, from jails to shopping centers to low-income housing, that discourages low-income housing.
Patterson, chairman of Habitat for Humanity, said often when his organization looks at building a house at a particular location, "somebody objects because we'll lower the property value," he said.
Silverstein, who is on an advisory board of ARCH, A Regional Coalition for Housing, said she doesn't object to covenants but does become concerned when people's desire to protect their investment prejudices them against those with less money.
Most lower-income families, when and if they finally do get a place to live, are so grateful they often take better care of their property than wealthier homeowners, she said.
"For people to think that it would depreciate property values is absurd, because these people really appreciate the opportunity to have a home."
Case in point: the formerly homeless man whose family was given a home through the Windermere Realty Foundation. The man couldn't afford a lawn mower, but didn't want his neighbors to think he wouldn't keep up the property.
So every day, he trims his lawn with sewing scissors.
Habitat's Patterson said people in need of homes aren't looking for a handout. His families put in 500 hours of "sweat equity" to work on their home or someone else's, and then pay a no-interest mortgage, as the Tretteviks have done. Carol Trettevik also volunteers as the office manager at Habitat.
The family had fallen on hard times when Guy Trettevik, a construction worker, hurt his back on the job and was unable to work. The family lived in a basement apartment, where Carol Trettevik said she was too embarrassed to host her daughter's Campfire meetings.
In their second month of owning their three-bedroom rambler, she said, "It's a wonderful feeling to know we're going to be here permanently." She said she feels sorry for people who have lost track of the true meaning of having a home.
"I don't care what color the neighbors are or what color they paint their house," said Carol Trettevik. "I just can't tell you how thrilled I am to finally own a home."
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