At first Joanne Marson thought she was just getting lucky. Then, as the years ticked by, including the go-go years of the great housing gold rush, she thought there must be some mistake.
Her rent almost never went up.
Sure, she lives north of Ballard in one of those 1950s low-slung apartment buildings that looks like a back-roads motel. It’s hardly fancy. Still, her rent remained curiously frozen, at around $680 a month, for much of the 2000s, through some very difficult years for her, including 2011 when her husband, Richard, died at age 76, and up until today.
“I thought maybe they’d forgotten to raise the rent,” Marson says. “But it’s a well-managed place, so that didn’t make a lot of sense.”
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She learned the truth when the building sold last month. Within a week of the sale she got a letter from the new owners: Her new rent, plus some fees, would total $1,375. A brutal 102 percent increase.
After 20 years it amounts to an eviction notice, as the bill exceeds Marson’s monthly Social Security income.
She started asking around and discovered the old owners had frozen her rent not due to oversight, but because she’s elderly and on a fixed income. They kept it that way for the older tenants of the seven-unit building. If someone left, the rent might go up. But not for the current residents.
“They were protecting us retired folks,” she says.
Marson’s husband was on dialysis for his final 10 years.
“I don’t know how we would have gotten through all that without these landlords,” she says. “They never said a thing. I never got a chance to thank them.”
Reached in California, where he now lives, the former landlord insisted he doesn’t qualify as news.
“I didn’t have any specific policy of helping people, or any heart of gold,” says Pat Wonser, 71, a retired banker. “I thought after years of living there, they deserved a stable place to live, and I was doing OK on the building. Not great but OK. They did OK, I did OK. Is that a story?”
Yes, sadly, it is.
In recent months the news has been filled with sorry tales of new owners evicting longtime elderly tenants or, as in this case, jacking up rents so abruptly that renters end up fleeing. In Seattle, there are no limits on rent increases — all that’s required is 60 days’ notice if it’s going up more than 10 percent.
To me, if it’s wrong to sock businesses with a sudden, 61 percent increase in the minimum wage — as Seattle businesses have been arguing so passionately — it’s even more wrong to raise the rent that much all at once on a fixed-income retiree.
“I knew as soon as I got the letter that I was out,” Marson says. “We’re not unique. This is happening to people all over Seattle.”
In the landlords’ defense, it isn’t 1995 anymore, which is when Wonser bought the north Ballard building. The premium prices being paid today even for old outdated buildings almost guarantees hefty rent increases. It doesn’t pencil otherwise.
Marson’s new rent of $1,375 is higher than the citywide average of around $1,200, but not by much. Last year Seattle ranked No. 1 in the nation for rent increases.
After 20 years in the same apartment, Marson is hoping to move into subsidized senior housing. Her building is emptying, she said. One neighbor moved out Tuesday. Some are leaving the city. Another, who is trying to stay in Seattle, couldn’t find an affordable place so is moving into a friend’s basement.
On this one corner in north Ballard, it’s like the modern economy arrived all of a sudden, when the landlord from another era sold. It’s like a bomb went off.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org