A dispute between tenants of a 109-year-old Capitol Hill building and the building’s new owner was thrust into the spotlight last month when City Council member Kshama Sawant said the situation was an example of why Seattle needs stronger protections against “slumlord” rent increases.
Tenants at The Celeste say the The Stratford Company owners are engaging in “economic evictions” by drastically increasing rents to force people out so the company can renovate the building. One tenant told CHS rents were increasing by $500 for units that were renting for under $1,000 a month.
Stratford’s regional manager Julie Medina pushed back against the economic eviction claims on Tuesday, telling CHS that tenants don’t understand how financial constraints and market pricing work.
“The old owners never increased rents and all we did was bring it to market rent,” Medina said. “You tell me where you can rent a unit on Capitol Hill for $800.”
According to county records, the Project S7 company owned by real estate developer George Webb purchased the 304 E Olive Pl building for $2.4 million in June. Webb’s Stratford Company owns 17 buildings across the Puget Sound, mostly small, older buildings.
On Tuesday, Sawant said that she was aware of tenants complaints at the Celeste and her office would be working with the Tenants Union to help resolve it. Medina said the real culprit for the rent increases is the old property owners as Statford is now being forced to pay for much-needed repairs.
Among all the housing upheaval on Capitol Hill, it’s not always clear how one specific landlord or building comes to represent a broader issue. In addition to one Celeste tenant that’s “stirred up” controversy about not being able to break a lease, Medina said Stratford is a victim of unfair scrutiny commonly heaped on companies that purchase and renovate older buildings. Longtime mom-and-pop owners may have well established relationships with their tenants, the type of relationships Medina said large corporations don’t forge.
“We have to make a quick judgement based on our bills,” Medina said. “We don’t have time to get to know your backstories.”
Recently, tenants of the building saw a water shutoff notice from Seattle Public Utilities posted due to delinquent payments. Medina told CHS it was an accounting oversight and the issue was resolved this week. Still, tensions between the tenants and Stratford persist.
“We haven’t been able to get in touch with management,” tenant Breckenridge Lanning told CHS. Lanning and others are currently working with the Tenant’s Union of Washington State to form a tenant’s association, a move that Medina said Stratford has no problem with.
Stratford also manages buildings including the Melrose on the Hill at 1620 Melrose which it purchased in 2006 for $4.5 million before flipping ownership of the building to the Diamond Parking company for $10 million in late 2014. The company also owned the project to redevelop the site of the old Marion Apartments at Pine and Bellevue before the completed six-story apartment building was sold to national apartment developer Equity Residential for $36.1 million in spring of 2014.
The rapid pace of new construction and turnover of older buildings has many Seattle officials claiming housing affordability has become a full-blown “crisis.” In a city booming like Seattle, Medina said rising rents are to be expected, and that means some people will no longer be able to afford it.
“You have that opportunity to go out to Shoreline and other areas. The transit system is awesome in Seattle,” she said. “Lake Forest Park, you’re 15 minutes from downtown on a bus.”