Booming rental market has kept phones ringing at Tenants Union — Plenty of calls from Capitol Hill

The Whitworth Apartments, where some rents rose 20% last year (Image: Cadence Real Estate)

The Whitworth Apartments, where some rents rose 20% last year (Image: Cadence Real Estate)

As rents on Capitol Hill continue to rise at breakneck rates, so are complaints of landlords trying to displace the residents paying those rents. Jonathan Grant, executive director of the Tenants Union, told CHS that calls about rent increases have become the top issue on the organization’s tenant’s rights hotline.

“In the last three years we’ve seen rising rents and displacement becoming the number one issue in Seattle,” he said.

Last year CHS wrote about several Capitol Hill tenants that had seen their rents jump drastically, some up to 20%. Recently we reported that average apartment rents in the neighborhood reached $1,557 a month, up $162 from last summer.

Seattle, unlike most other places in the state, has fairly robust renter’s rights laws. Grant said there are several red flags tenants should look out for if they suspect landlords are angling to get them out or illegally raise rents. The most common sign, he said, is if an owner has a capital needs assessment done on the building. Grant said inspectors poking around could signal a building is going to be sold, meaning tenants could face big rent hikes or get forced out all together.

Grant told CHS some building owners have been so bold as to attempt to raise rents for an entire building — something that would likely be illegal unless every lease in the building was ending simultaneously. Small unit upgrades are also not always what they might seem.

“Often developers make cosmetic to buildings and use that to say thats why they need to raise rents,” he said.

While some housing experts like Rep. Frank Chopp are promoting more development as a way to bring about affordability, Grant said the city cannot build its way out of displacing residents.

“It’s not just about having more units, its about preserving the buildings that are more affordable and not tearing them down for luxury apartments,” he said.

The Tenants Union is currently working with residents in the Squire Park Plaza Apartments who are fighting to prevent the nonprofit owned building getting sold to a private company. Tenants are worried they’ll eventually be forced out of their below market rate units.

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50 thoughts on “Booming rental market has kept phones ringing at Tenants Union — Plenty of calls from Capitol Hill

  1. Cadence, the company that owns the Whitworth recently acquired the Clairemont on Yesler and 20th. They have raised rents in this building by over 30% in the past month. They are a bad player – perhaps more exposure on them and their practices would help stem the tide?

    • No, there isn’t. That would be rent control, which we don’t have. But it would be illegal to raise rent while a lease is in effect.

    • IIRC, if it’s going up more than 10% they have to give you 60 days notice before it takes effect. That doesn’t stop them from raising it by 10% every few months though, of course.

      • It can only go up 10% in 12 months. If a landlord raises it 5% in January, and then raises it 5% in October, he still has to give you a 60 day notice.

        Other than that, rent increases are fair game, because the Seattle City Council belongs to landlords and developers.

      • Are you saying that the maximum rent increase over one year is 10%? Are you sure? If that’s correct, it is a form of rent control.

    • We have some rent control in the notice limitations but a landlord could raise by an unlimited amount with 60-day notice, right? 10%? 30%? 50%? more? It’s time for meaningful rent control.

      • If someone told you you couldn’t raise the price of your product, whatever it was, because it made people upset, you’d probably say that was not fair. Are you willing to limit any increases to your income to 5-10% so employers don’t get upset? Have you seen what “rent control” did to SF? Many landlords these stopped doing repairs decades ago since they couldn’t get any more money for doing them while costs for repairs kept climbing. Careful what you ask for. With rent control, there will soon be 150 applicants for every vacancy. How are you going to decide who gets the unit? Maybe it will go to the applicant willing to pay a $5000 “key fee” like in Tokyo.

  2. Seattle does not have a very “robust” tenant protection law. Rent can be increased at any time (unless the lease says otherwise) by any amount. The law just requires a certain amount of notice that goes up to 60 days if the increase exceeds 10%. Moreover, tenants have almost no recourse when a landlord breaks the law. Going to court is a pretty expensive and time consuming process for your average tenant.

  3. “…rents on Capitol Hill continue to rise at breakneck rates, so are complaints of landlords trying to displace the residents paying those rents.”

    can you quantify the number of complaints that are being received from capitol hill renters?

    “Grant said there are several red flags tenants should look out for if they suspect landlords are angling to get them out or illegally raise rents. The most common sign, he said, is if an owner has a capital needs assessment done on the building.”

    as a renter, how would i know there was a capital needs assessment being done on my building? does the landlord need to file some sort of paperwork with the city that i can research for? or should i just assume anyone working on the building is a sign the landlord plans to sell and kick me out? and how often has this been happening in the past 12 months; the last 3 years?

    sorry, but this post reads like commenter bait. do you have any substantial data behind how much the complaints have been growing? is it at the same rate that rents have been rising? you mention that in some cases rents have risen 20% but it looks like the average has only grown 12% since last summer. is a 12% YOY rental rate increase comparable to other, non-recession years, on capitol hill? has 12% even been the yearly norm for the past 3 years or are we seeing an overly active past 12 months?

    not trying to bust your balls but there’s not much to go on here to determine how much of an issue this really is.

    • The TU told me that the call data that they do keep would not have been very useful for this story, hence the anecdotal stuff. I’ll swing back with them on clarifying more points.

      It’s difficult to find good historical data on average rents on Capitol Hill. You’re right that having some sense of pre-recession rent increases would be really interesting.

      • I’ve heard from Dupre+Scot that over the past 20 years, property owner expenses have outpaced rent increases. Utilities alone have been skyrocketing. The past couple years may just be a “correction” in rents relative to expenses.

  4. I lived in a 1 bedroom at the Whitworth up to 2006 and paid $825/mo with parking. It was a great unit – loved living there and the people I had as neighbors.

    I’m curious as to what rent for that unit is now. Most likely double what I paid back then.

  5. i WISH my rent only went up 20%. over the 5 years i have lived in my building my rent has gone up 55%. 55%!!!! they can’t wait until we leave so they can get some amazon employee that just moved to the city to pay $2800 for this place.

    • I’m getting priced out of my old building, too. This is exactly why all this new construction should be 10-12 stories AT LEAST, not a paltry 6 stories. That added supply would help absorb so many more of these highly paid newcomers that want to live on Capitol Hill at any cost. Would leave the older, “quirkier” buildings to those of us that are more sensitive to price.

      We stop at 6 stories to preserve the “feel of Capitol Hill” (whatever that means) but that comes at the cost of less supply, driving up costs for the rest of us.

      • It is very doubtful that allowing greater heights would magically result in lower rents for all. It is obvious that there is a huge number of new apartments going up (with more to come, such as at the light rail station), and that we are increasing density more than any other neighborhood. It is not necessary to build up more than 4-6 stories…we are already increasing supply significantly within the land use codes already in place.

      • “It is very doubtful that allowing greater heights would magically result in lower rents for all.”
        It may not result in lower rents, but it would definitely help stem the tide of rising rents. I’m basing my argument on proven economic principles (i.e. supply & demand). What are you basing your assumption on?

        “It is obvious that there is a huge number of new apartments going up (with more to come, such as at the light rail station),”
        Yes, which is great and I totally agree, but that doesn’t mean we are adding enough.

        “we are increasing density more than any other neighborhood.”
        I’m pretty sure South Lake Union is adding density faster than Capitol Hill.

        “It is not necessary to build up more than 4-6 stories…”
        What is special about 4-6 stories? Seems very arbitrary.

        “we are already increasing supply significantly within the land use codes already in place.”
        How do you define ‘significantly’ and what measure are you using? I would define ‘significant supply’ as when rents stabilize or (even better) decrease to inflation-adjusted values from even just a couple years ago. Which isn’t close happening. My rent has gone up over 20% in two years. Much faster than inflation. By that measure, we aren’t increasing supply fast enough. This neighborhood desperately needs a housing bubble but I don’t see one anytime soon. Incomes are rising, jobs are being added, population is increasing, and new units aren’t keeping up.

      • Just look around. There are many, many new buildings going up. If this isn’t a “housing bubble,” I don’t know what is.

      • Yes, I agree there are lots of new buildings going up, but the problem I’m talking about is that there aren’t enough total new UNITS within all these new buildings. Rents won’t start dropping until buildings are competing for tenants instead of tenants competing against other tenants for limited supply.

        Calhoun, I’m curious, do you rent or own?

      • From what I understand the 6 story buildings are the absolute cheapest way to build, because you can use wood. Anything higher than that requires different building techniques (metal) and would surely cost even more to rent.

      • That actually confirms my point. Even if the tall buildings have very high rent, they would absorb more of the new residents that have a lot of $$. For every person that chooses one of these expensive new units, that relieves price pressure on the older buildings.

  6. My rent on my one bedroom just went up 17%, w/60 day notice. Reason explained is property tax, utility cost increases. Bullshit, in my opinion. Just trying to get to ‘market rate’.
    Tempted to wall off the livingroom for a 2nd bedroom, turn dining room into living room and find a roommate. Have a huge, lush garden and patio that can be summer’s livingroom, too.
    hmmmmmmm…that would piss off the landlord.

    • For what it’s worth, the property taxes on my co-op went up by that percentage this year, so while you may be correct that it’s a market rate issue, it’s also factually true that property taxes are going up at a rather rapid rate.

  7. In the last two years our rent has increased by $600. Now for a 2 bed 2 bath, it’s just under $3,000.
    The lease is up again in October. We will really miss Seattle, but are off to Long Beach, Ca.
    On a high floor with a view of the ocean, 2bed, 2bath, with a wrap around terrace. A new building with a pool, hot tub and a sauna, meeting rooms, exercise room all for $1,000 a month less than we pay here.

  8. it is really sad but tenant retention is a thing of the past up here now. if anything landlords want you to leave so they can get amazon transplants that desperately need a place before they start work to pay astronomical rent.

    its pretty telling when you look at craigslist ads for apts and they’re all pandering to the amazon crowd, saying things like “bring your passport and offer letter” to verify income.

    i think this blog is doing this community a disservice by not speaking out more on this extremely important issue. how many long time hill residents are now priced out of the neighborhood that they helped build? these are the people that made this neighborhood such a great place to live. whats happening up here is such a shame. makes me sick to my stomach.

    • What impact do you think this blog will have? Do you think landlords aren’t aware of just how much they’re raising rent? Frankly, it’s not their problem that you can’t afford stupid-high rent. Their job is to find somebody that can. And as unfortunate as it is for long-time residents, there are plenty of people who make enough to pay it. You’ll never see Seattle instituting rent control. Channel that same energy you’d be wasting into training for a higher paying job. It’s not going to change. And people should stop thinking of living on CapHill as something they’re ‘entitled’ to just because they always have.

    • This blog, bless its heart, features real journalism, which means it aims to be as objective as possible. It is not an editorial page, which for example might “speak out” for rent control. The issue of housing affordability is covered frequently here and CHS deserves a lot of credit for this. Don’t expect it to be a mouthpiece for a certain point of view.

  9. Interesting that everyone thinks well-paid techie’s are only to blame for the rapid increases in rent.

    Recently a gentleman who has lobbied against aPodments noted in a TV channel interview that he’s raising rents on his rentals due to the increase of price per sqft in the area.

    aPodments across the street from me start at $4.26 sqft. Condos that are rented in my building are around $2.50 sqft.

    Of course supply, demand and people with ability to pay are factors buy maybe not the entire factor to blame when you do price per sqft analysis.

    • It IS the techie’s. Before I got priced out of my building, almost 100% of the new tenants coming in to pay the higher rents were Amazon and Microsoft employess that were new to the Seattle area. They came in and displaced tenants who couldn’t afford the rent hike. This continued until the whole building turned over. I look now at the rental rates for the same unit and they are 55% higher than when I was forced out in 2011. Same goes for the businesses and buildings. Owners are being offered big money for their old buildings and land. Small retailers and lower cost apartments are being demolished in favor of sterilized retail on bottome, over priced condos and luxury apartments on top “mixed use” buildings. Bottom line, Amazon and Microsoft are completely changing the makeup of Capitol Hill. By 2025, the neighborhood will be unrecognizable to most of us who lived there prior to the techie nerd boom and way out of the price range for any average citizen.

      • I agree with Bob, however I attribute this to a larger issue: We have a housing shortage crisis in Capitol Hill. These highly paid people are going to continue to immigrate to this neighborhood in spades, and if we don’t build enough new units to absorb them all, they’re just going to continue out-competing us for what little supply we have, driving prices ever higher. We need height limits that are greater than a paltry 4-6 stories.

  10. One thing we can all do to slow rising rents would be to stop voting for every cockamamie special interest that wants a special levy on property to support something or other. They add up bigtime to apartment buildings and they get passed along to tenants.

    • Property taxes are a BIG factor in all of this. Back when I was renting I always voted yes on anything without hesitation. I have owned property on Capitol Hill for the last 17 years and have learned that the burden on taxpayers is ENORMOUS. Landlords simply cannot be expected to absorb these increases. They have to pass them on to the tenants.

      Let’s make the Whitworth our example. Some poking around on the tax assessors website proves this point.

      2014: Whitworth has a value of around 9 million and pays around $96,000 per year in property tax. A couple thousand dollars per unit.

      2011 (3 years earlier) Whitworth pays around $69,000 in property tax. So in 3 years the taxes on just this one building have increased almost $27,000! Not quite 50 percent but certainly a HUGE increase in a very short amount of time. I don’t know anyone who has had a comparable pay increase at any job. I certainly haven’t.

      My own taxes seem to go up $1,000 a year over the last few years. Next year I will break the $9,000 mark I am sure. And yet every government entity around here is flat broke with a huge backlog of work. Looking at the filthy crumbling streets around the Whitworth makes me wonder where that extra $27,000 is going? 17th Avenue from John Street to Madison is in disgusting shape and hasn’t seen fresh pavement since 1950 nor has it been cleaned in years.

      Be sure to vote yes on the Parks District scam and you will see those rents go up even more. There is no ceiling on how much property taxes can go up with that puppy! A blank check so to speak.

      I also agree that no matter how tall we build or how many units are made available the rents are NOT going down anytime soon. And the moment they do start to drop banks will tighten up financing until demand catches up. In essence renters are screwed.

  11. Get out while maintaining some money. Move before you can’t. These rent increases will continue until even Amazon employees can’t pay it and only wealthy investors and 1 percent can. Housing is a human right not a luxury. This is just sick and wrong.

  12. Hey Bryan,

    I must say your article “Booming rental market has kept phones ringing at Tenants Union — Plenty of calls from Capitol Hill” is super weak and fails to shed actual knowledge and perspective on the problem.

    If I had to guess, I’d say you haven’t been affected by these drastic rent increases. Maybe I’m wrong, but..

    I certainly know a thing or two about the issue; I (and my fellow former tenants at the time -almost all moved out) tried to deal with the Tenant’s Union and many other political and legal channels. WE were affected. My $850/mo rent shot up to $1400+ in 6 months. Thankyouverymuch, Hamilton Urban. Do the math. That’s WAY MORE than 20%, even 30%. And, I am far from alone.

    Also, you state: “Seattle, unlike most other places in the state, has fairly robust renter’s rights laws.” That sentence is kind of just a big joke. What are you even comparing? WA State is a state where rent control was MADE ILLEGAL around two decades ago by a corrupt Olympia and the wealthy landowners they bid for?! You didn’t even mention that. If you compare like things (say Seattle to San Fran, Portland, NYC, LA and other major ‘progressive’ cities with large renter populations), you’ll draw very different, more useful conclusions.

    Also, there is a Captil Hill election GOING ON RIGHT NOW where a key piece of the incumbent’s challenger’s platform is rent control. No mention of that either. Heaven forbid, Frank Chopp (said incumbent) is outed for being the nepotistic, corporate dufus he really is.

    The rental situation in Seattle is awful for artists, working ‘stiffs’ who don’t make Techie or Fat-Restaurant-bartender bank and for most service workers. Sadly, it’s only getting worse. So much for the idiotic Chopp/McGinn solution, where we leave it all to free-markets to verbuild supply (as if; how STUPID!!!).

    The “Tenant’s Union” is so quiet as to be almost useless. I know. They were of ZERO help to me and my fellow former apartment mates. I emailed Justin about this a year+ ago. He said he might be in touch about a story. Trust me, I can round up plenty of folks who were borderline evicted by price gouging from greedy landlords who can charge whatever they want. Just say the word(s).

    I can tell you so many stories of construction fiascos that affected our ability to live where we live with ZERO CONCESSIONS. Instead, they raised our rents!!!

    As for the Tenant’s Union? They were incapable or unwilling to do a thing to even try stop it. Did they testify, plead with City Council? Did they hold meetings to shed light on the issue with local media? NOPE! Did they offer solutions? No, no, no. Here we are, years after this crap began, a year or two after The Stranger and The Weekly wrote specific articles about exactly what I’m talking about and years after CHS has kind of, sort of, tackled the issue and all we get is this fluffy piece? If CHS wants to speak to and on behalf of the people of this community, please do a better job of talking to us. We’ll tell you what’s going on!

    And, the real story? The questions that NEVER get asked of those who could change things (Council, Chopp, the State legislature’s local reps): What are you DOING?! And, when’s it getting done? I have zero desire to live in a sterile tech world à la San Jose, where the next crop of Nirvanas, Macklemores and Hey Marseilles can’t afford to live.

    Sorry if this sounds harsh, but, I’m tired of a media that reports these severe and detrimental issues facing our city, my city, as though it’s just another human interest story. There are pertinent facts being left out and critical perspective is being lost. I can explain exactly what I mean, backed with facts, whenever you’d like to chat. :-)

    Cheers and thanks to CHS for what you do, generally.


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