Condo wave leaves renters battered
The Associated Press
OLYMPIA — When Gary Perry moved to Seattle two summers ago, he thought he'd found the perfect place to live.
It was a one-bedroom apartment close to Seattle University, where Perry had been hired as a sociology professor.
The rent was reasonable and parking was a cinch.
But after eight months, Perry and other tenants of the mid-century building on Capitol Hill were told the owners were converting it to condos.
"It caught me totally off guard," Perry said. "I was shocked."
He has plenty of company. In 2006, more than 2,300 rental units were converted to condos in Seattle, up from 430 in 2004.
Renters have first option to buy the new condo.
But many, like Perry, can't afford to.
The Legislature is considering a bill that would help protect renters whose buildings are converted to condos. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday in the Senate Consumer Protection and Housing committee.
Sponsored by Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, the bill would lengthen the amount of notice a renter must receive before his or her apartment is converted, require the owner to provide tenants with relocation-assistance information and delay construction until everyone has moved out.
The measure would also remove a $500 cap on relocation assistance for low-income individuals, allowing cities to set higher requirements.
"Rents are high in Seattle, and it's hard to find a spot," said Jacobsen, who was made aware of the issue by Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen.
"You're in some place, and then they tell you you've got to buy it or you lose it ... that's not fair."
Rasmussen aide Brian Hawksford said the city needs flexibility on the issue that state law doesn't currently allow.
The $500 cap on assistance is not enough to help a low-income person hire movers and find a new place, Hawksford said.
If the measure passed, Seattle could set a higher amount.
Some low-income-housing advocates say the measure doesn't go far enough to protect those who cannot afford to buy.
John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition wants lawmakers to include language that would allow the city to limit the number of units that can be converted, as San Francisco and other cities do.
"Since 2005, the problem has erupted to stratospheric numbers in Seattle," Fox said.
"It's decimating our rental housing stock."
Critics argue that such a limit might not be constitutional in this state.
"The Washington constitution is unusually protective of property rights," said Chris Benis, a Seattle housing attorney who has worked on cases for the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound.
City officials say the rise in condo conversions does not necessarily mean a shortage of low-income housing.
Adrienne Quinn, director of the Seattle Office of Housing, said most of the apartments that have been converted already had high rent.
"The developers were looking for a quick buck," Quinn said.
"They were going after places that were already not affordable housing because they wanted to flip the building."
More buildings with lower rents are being converted as developers run out of easy projects, Quinn said, but the condo-conversion trend in Seattle seems to have slowed recently.
Glenn Crellin, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University, said most condo conversions in the state are occurring in the Seattle area.
He said condos in Spokane generally are being converted from other buildings, such as older hotels or warehouses, not apartments.
Spokane spokeswoman Marlene Feist said there were 85 applications for condo units between 2000 and 2005.
In 2006 alone, there were 292 applications, and none involved conversions from apartments.
"We're really hitting a stride in interest in condo projects," Feist said.
Condo conversions dwindled considerably nationwide in 2006, after 10 years of record growth produced an oversupply of condos, said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.
Despite the national slowdown, people like Perry, who got no relocation assistance when kicked out of his apartment, vow not to be burned again.
When Perry looked for a new home, he made sure to look in places he didn't think would be converted to condos.
"We need to do something to control this," Perry said. "It's driving people away from the city."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company