Mildew grows on a wall. An aquarium bubbles in the living room, its brackish water, the roommates say, contains beer, pizza, urine and a Spider-Man action figure. There are beer bottles, garbage and a shattered door patched with cork.
Until the city cracked down on the owner recently, the single-family home in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood had up to 13 unrelated people living there at up to $490 each per month. One tenant rented a closet.
No more than eight unrelated adults are allowed under the area’s zoning laws, and the owner, Dan Wendfeldt, was cited for having too many people living in one home and for failing to maintain minimum housing standards. He has until Nov. 30 to comply or face up to $150 a day in fines.
For the neighbors, getting Wendfeldt, who could not be reached for comment, to acknowledge the problems in the house has been a long time coming.
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For years, they have complained that his renters urinate and vomit in the street and cause late-night noise and altercations that make the neighborhood unsafe.
Some students living in the house side with the complaining neighbors but say they live there because it is all they can afford in pricey Seattle.
Whether it’s in the city or suburbs, legal and illegal rooming houses are flourishing. They help meet the need for affordable housing but aren’t always welcomed in what are single-family neighborhoods.
There are new ordinances, including one passed last year that will require all rentals in Seattle to be registered and inspected.
The inspections are to ensure the residences adhere to the zoning code and meet the county standards for health and safety.
The ordinance goes into effect next July, but with the thousands of rental units, and the once-every-10-years inspection schedule, it may be several years before the city is able to check on all the rentals in the city, say officials.
Alan Durning, executive director of Sightline, a nonprofit sustainable-living advocacy group, says meeting the need for affordable housing hasn’t been without its growing pains.
But while many residents seethe at the idea of urban density in their neighborhood, Durning, a Ballard resident, said the need for affordable housing is so great he would like to see more lenient regulations.
“A lot of the arguments … are just exclusionary, classist opposition against the working class, against students and immigrants,” he said. “There is not unanimity in any neighborhood.’’
The complaints about the Ravenna house are not isolated to it, said Karen Ko, Seattle community-development officer.
She noted that in the University Park neighborhood there were many homes that had been converted into boardinghouses, which resulted in loud parties with lots of drinking and “neighbors spending many years working on the issue.”
“Although building code dictates that no more than eight unrelated people can live in a single-family residence, (the Department of Planning and Development) can’t enter premises without tenants’ permission to assess the situation — unless there is a health or safety risk apparent from the exterior,” Ko said.
Ruedi Risler, a University Park resident, has fought to keep his neighborhood peaceful, after years of upset, which, he said, included a shooting, a burglary and a fire after someone cleaned out a meth pipe with a torch.
“Offhand, I would say we (now) have 100-plus rooming houses, with 30 or so giving occasional problems and a dozen or so with chronic issues. The number of rooming houses is increasing,’’ Risler said.
“But we have also made progress with keeping the problems under control.”
In Laurelhurst, a 7,131-square-foot, nine-bedroom home was built on Northeast 44th Street
and passed inspection as a single-family home. Then neighbors saw an advertisement for the “Laurelhurst Rooming House’’ and complained to the city.
Officials found that after the house was approved by the Department of Planning and Development, the owner installed kitchens in all nine bedrooms, effectively changing the home into a multifamily dwelling.
The owner was required to remove the kitchens, said Bryan Stevens, spokesman for the department. But there was nothing to stop it from being used as a rooming house, as it is designated today.
Dream no longer
When Molly McNamara moved to the Ravenna area 13 years ago, she thought her white Craftsman was her dream house in “our dream neighborhood.’’ Then the men in Wendfeldt’s rooming house came along and “just blew up the neighborhood.”
“The alcohol, the cussing, the catcalls to the (teenage) girl across the street,’’ she said. “We’ve thought about moving.
“They have no privacy in their house so they go outside and walk up and down the street talking on their cellphones,’’ she said.
There have been assaults, including one when Wendfeldt punched one of the roommates in the face. Wendfeldt pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of fourth-degree assault.
All in the house are students — referred to Wendfeldt by the Divers Institute of Technology. Other neighborhoods have blamed University of Washington students as well as nonstudents for reducing quality of life in a quest for cheap housing.
Michelle Philbin, the director of admissions at the diving school, said when she tells students from out of town about the price of housing, “you can hear the jaw drop over the phone. The apartment complexes aren’t working as well (as rooming houses). Students don’t have first and last months’ rent and damage deposits. Dan (Wendfeldt) has been very helpful with our students,’’ although now with the neighborhood complaints, the school has taken him off the list of recommended landlords.
From September 2010 through Oct. 13 this year, Ravenna neighbors called the police with noise complaints 18 times, yet only once — on Oct. 13 — was anyone cited.
“We try and resolve noise complaints at the lowest level possible to include meeting with both parties and providing mediation if appropriate,’’ said Detective Renee Witt, Seattle police spokeswoman. “From time to time we may issue a citation and or write a report.”
Witt said that apparently “all of the noise calls were made by one person. The caller then refused contact with officers and would not allow them access so that the officers could hear what the caller was hearing,’’ necessary for a citation to be given.
The neighbors say they were fearful of being identified as the callers and hoped the police would handle the problem without them.
Casey Alexander, 30, an Iraq war veteran, husband and father, lives at the Ravenna house because he can’t afford anything else. He owns a home in Kentucky where his wife and son live. Neighbors call him “a great guy” who is a good neighbor. He hopes the situation will be better now that some of the more rowdy residents have moved out.
The neighbors, who have seen and heard it all for years, aren’t optimistic.
Nancy Bartley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8522