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Monday, August 13, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seniors shoved aside by condo conversions

Times South King County Reporter

For a while there, the friends in 5D had a nice rhythm going. Dan Lewis, 71, cooked the meals. Robin Kissel, 61, did the laundry. Jack Mize, 68, paid for the cable.

They made the rent on time, every month, for 15 years, using money from Social Security and minimum-wage jobs. No one was living in luxury. But no one was heading into old age alone.

Then came the announcement: A developer planned to turn their tired, three-bedroom Federal Way apartment into something better — a $208,000 condominium they could never afford.

"Lot of stress the last few weeks here, worrying about what we're going to do, and how we're going to do it," Lewis said of the Aug. 31 deadline to leave.

In the past few years, condo conversions have sent thousands of Puget Sound renters in search of affordable housing. It's not easy for the young and able-bodied, with a regional vacancy rate at 4.3 percent. For senior citizens, the search is that much harder.

Frail health often narrows their options to communities where medical services and support are close by. And fixed incomes often limit their ability to put down a deposit, or pay for the move.

If they live in Seattle, seniors may be eligible for up to $500 in relocation assistance. But Seattle is believed to be the only city in Washington that requires developers to provide that assistance to low-income renters.

"It's a reflection of how out of touch the area leadership is with the gravity of this issue," said John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a regional low-income-housing group.

It's easy to see condo conversions as a Seattle issue; about 5,400 rental units have either gone, or are going, condo since 2004. But according to Dupre + Scott Apartment Advisors, the trend is hitting pockets all around Puget Sound.

One Kirkland neighborhood has lost 923 units in less than three years. A neighborhood in Everett has lost 713.

In Federal Way, known for its affordable-housing stock, 758 units have gone, or are going condo, including Whispering Hills Apartments, the 111-unit complex where the friends in 5D live.

Supporters of the conversions point out that the trend is providing homeownership opportunities to people who could never afford a house. The median sales price for a single-family house in King County was $481,000 in July, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. The median condo price was about $296,000.

But for many, condos are still far out of reach. And while the Puget Sound Rental Housing Association predicts that conversions will slow this year, the area is still losing rentals faster than it's gaining new ones.

Relocation assistance

It's unclear exactly how many seniors are affected by the condo-conversion trend. But Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chair of the council's housing committee, said his office fields concerns from seniors regularly. These are self-sufficient people, he said, at risk of becoming homeless, or relying on state subsidies, because they can't pay first and last month's rent, plus a damage deposit.

"Who on Social Security within 90 days is going to be able to save up that kind of money?" said Rasmussen, former director of the Seattle Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens.

Certainly not Dan Lewis, who gets $705 a month in Social Security. About $545 of that goes toward the $945 rent. Even with the help of food stamps, he visits the food bank every couple of weeks.

A bill last legislative session would have significantly raised the lid on how much relocation assistance cities can require developers to pay. It also would have required 120 days' notice, rather than the 90 mandated now. But the effort got derailed by controversial talk of allowing cities to impose limits on condo conversions.

Outside Seattle, said state Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, chairman of the House housing committee, there simply isn't enough will to get the work done. The focus in South King County, for example, is on police services, schools, economic development — the basics these cities need to keep up with fast population growth.

Condo conversions are clearly putting pressure on the rental market in Federal Way, said Kelli O'Donnell, of the city's community-development department. But like many smaller cities, Federal Way doesn't have dedicated housing staff to track the trend.

As for relocation assistance, that would mean passing an ordinance, setting up a program and diverting staff. The City Council is not likely to look into it, O'Donnell said, until residents start to raise concerns.

To Miloscia, it's all just a matter of time. Between the increasing mobile-home-park closures and the ongoing condo conversions, he sees a crisis down the line for baby boomers. And that may just be the turning point in the overall fight for affordable housing.

No demographic motivates politicians, he said, as much as the elderly.

"If it hits the seniors, then finally, we'll start paying attention to housing," said Miloscia.

Nowhere else to go

Moving day is three weeks away now, and Dan's record collection is still spread out in small stacks all over the apartment. Robin's stuffed animals are spilling out of her bedroom, into the hallway and onto the piano top. Books lay everywhere.

Months ago, they applied for an apartment around the corner. They knew a woman who worked there, a woman who could vouch for them. But Dan and Robin have poor credit from the past. And Jack has no credit at all.

Their application was denied.

"We're old, we're quiet, we don't have keggers," said Dan. "I don't get it."

They've been friends for years, these three. Dan and Jack met back when they were record collectors, wandering the same swap-meet circuit. They ran into Robin later, delivering newspapers. Same route, different papers, driving Federal Way in the dark before dawn.

Fifteen years later, Jack needs an oxygen tank to breathe. Dan has developed serious back problems. Robin has osteoarthritis.

It's a source of tension sometimes, but Robin's grown son also lives with them, paying the telephone bill and his mother's groceries with money from his minimum-wage job.

Robin shakes her head when she thinks of it. All these years working for a rental-car company, earning $8.20 an hour. Paying the rent, the electric bill, the car insurance on time. Staying sober for nearly 20 years.

She just assumed old age would bring some relief.

"And, of course, that's not how real life is," she said.

They've been slow to apply for other apartments, in part because credit checks cost $40 each. One application is pending, the decision due any day.

If they don't get that apartment, Dan can move to Oregon to live with his daughter. Jack will cast around for an assisted-living facility. But for Robin and her son, there is nowhere else to go.

The other day, Dan sat quietly in his recliner, smoking his pipe, surrounded by half-packed boxes, listening to Robin play the piano. Rachmaninoff is his favorite, but anything Robin plays will do. She was a serious music student once.

When she looks at the life that could lie ahead, Robin is most upset about losing that piano. What a thrill it is to play, she said — the one thing she does really well. And Dan has always been there to listen.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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