ANGELA WELLS REMEMBERS when she, her high school sweetheart Mark and their first son arrived at The Arches Apartments along Rainier Avenue South. Down the street from their son’s day care, they filled the clean, quiet one-bedroom rental with the hallmarks of a young couple starting out: sparse furniture and dinners at a folding card table.
“I was just thankful to be on my own,” Wells remembers.
But the apartment quickly became home.
The couple had a second son and moved into a two-bedroom with a big kitchen. They got married across South Holly Street and moved into a three-bedroom at the same apartment complex for more space. They’ve now been at The Arches for more than 30 years.
A few doors down from Wells, Kilah Johnson, a TSA agent, prepares each day for her 3:45 a.m. shift with a certain sense of security.
Her 11-year-old daughter walks to a school just a few blocks away with other neighborhood children. A teacher at the school lives in the same building. “I go to work comfortably knowing my kids are OK,” she said.
Neighbors like Wells look out for her and her kids, a bond Johnson has held onto since she and her husband arrived at the 25-unit Arches Apartments in 2007.
“We moved in and we never left,” she said.
The building brought financial security, too. The owner, neighborhood fixture Barbara Chamberlain, “didn’t try to break our backs with the rent,” said Johnson, who pays about $1,800 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. That’s close to the $1,600 charged for the average new lease on a one-bedroom apartment in South Seattle, according to the data firm CoStar.
Sure, there were regular rent increases over the years, but “she didn’t try to take it to the extreme.”
That stability and community for dozens of people — at prices health care workers, teachers and TSA agents could afford — was disrupted earlier this year, when Chamberlain died.
The apartments were listed for sale.
In Seattle’s racially diverse and more affordable South End, the prospect of a sale worried tenants. For one local nonprofit, the race was on to try to keep the building affordable.
Rents all over the region are up, and renters of color, especially Black renters, are more likely to spend more than a third of their income on rent than white renters. And across the region, Black, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander and multiracial people are more likely to report having to move because of rising housing costs.
A promotional flyer about The Arches told prospective buyers that while other nearby neighborhoods had seen “luxury developments go up and longtime residents move out,” Rainier Valley and Rainier Beach had seen “less upheaval.”
Rainier Beach, the neighborhood south of The Arches, “is an affordable, ethnically diverse neighborhood in south Seattle. … While gentrification hasn’t come yet to this residential area, given development in adjacent parts of the city it’s only a matter of time,” the flyer read. That could mean financial upside for investors.
Rents in many of the units at The Arches were below market rates, and residents worried a new owner would jack up their costs.
Would they be able to find a new rental in the neighborhood where they were rooted? Would they be able to stay in Seattle at all? And at what cost?
“I just have no idea, with the way rent is, where we would go,” Johnson said in an early April interview.
Wells turned to her faith and prayed.
“We have no control,” she said. “If we have to go, we have to go.”
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WHEN CURTIS BROWN learned about the sale of The Arches, he knew he had little time to make something big happen.
As executive director of the nonprofit Southeast Seattle Senior Foundation, Brown helps manage an affordable apartment building for seniors across the street. His organization, also known as the Brighton Development Group, has two houses on the block. He wanted The Arches to be next.
“You know how to stop displacement?” Brown asks impatiently. “You buy up as much of the neighborhood as possible, and make sure developers don’t get it.”
Brown said he had talked to Chamberlain about transferring the property to the nonprofit, but nothing had been finalized. By this spring, the building was listed for sale and Brown was racing the clock.
He called nearly every banker and city staff person he knew.
Brown could tap a bank loan to buy the building. But in order to keep it affordable, he’d need to raise money for a significant down payment. That would reduce the amount he borrowed from the bank, keep his monthly payments lower, and allow him to avoid significant rent hikes.
The problem: Cobbling together that kind of funding can take months. The private market moves in days or weeks.
“We’re scrambling,” Brown said in early April. Offers were due in a week and a half.
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IT’S A STORY that has played out time and again as Seattle has grown and gentrified.
An apartment building with moderate rents goes up for sale, a new owner raises the rent and current tenants are forced to look for somewhere cheaper, often farther from their work or family. New tenants able to pay the higher rents move in.
King County data shows that even as the region has seen a boom in construction, it has also lost tens of thousands of affordable housing units, the result of rising rents and, in some cases, demolition.
When The Arches hit the market, the promotional flyer laid out just what rising rents mean for a potential investor in the complex. A three-bedroom apartment currently renting for $1,620 could go for $2,450, based on market prices. A $1,475 two-bedroom could go for $1,950.
When tenants’ first response to news of a sale is that they expect to be displaced, “that’s a bad commentary on what we’re claiming to be as a country, county, city and state,” said Gregory Davis, managing strategist at the Rainier Beach Action Coalition.
The group has called for more ways for tenants to buy rental buildings when they go up for sale. Seattle law already requires owners of affordable apartment buildings to notify the city and residents about their intentions. But with tenants rarely able to buy the buildings themselves, governments or nonprofits need cash or financing to step in.
“Let’s start giving other folks opportunities,” Davis said. “We’ve got to get to that, so folks aren’t auto-replying that they’re going to get displaced.”
Soon after she got word the building would be sold, Lisa B. started noticing the visitors outside the windows of her three-bedroom apartment at The Arches. On her Wednesdays off, she’d notice groups passing by, often in suits.
“I know they’re scoping out the place because it’s a property in a prime location,” said Lisa, who asked not to use her full name to preserve her privacy.
“I know you’re not going to do anything with this place that would be for anyone that lives here,” Lisa remembered thinking.
“I feel like Black culture is one of those cultures that seems kind of disposable. It has a history of being disposable. There’s not very many places historically where we’ve been welcomed, and we’re just getting pushed more and more out of our communities,” she said.
When Lisa looked back on her 10 years at The Arches, she said she “grew up here.”
Her 19-year-old daughter went through the ups and downs of her teenage years in the apartment. Lisa went through big transitions of her own, getting into a new career as an ophthalmic technician, helping treat patients with eye diseases. The easy commute to First Hill, the city’s medical hub, helped her access jobs. And last year, she had a new baby whose day care is a few blocks away.
“I became proud of myself,” Lisa said, sitting in the sun-dripped dining room of her apartment last week. “I was really able to get on my feet without help. … I built myself completely here.”
She hoped to stay until she could buy a house. “I’d like to stay in this place for as long as I could. I don’t want that to sound selfish. But it’s like, at least that.”
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BROWN, from the senior foundation, caught an important break about a week before offers were due.
A bank, 1st Security, offered a loan for the full cost of the building that would allow him to pay only interest for the first year. The Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, which offers loans to small businesses and nonprofits, also pledged a $1 million loan. That would buy time to gather public funds and donations for a down payment. The South Seattle Emerald, a nonprofit news outlet, covered his effort.
Brown put together his offer: the full listing price of $6.35 million and a promise to keep the building affordable over time.
He braced for a loss.
“There will not be a lack of offers we’re competing against,” he said in early April.
For private market investors, “the capital you’re raising can be raised quickly” by pulling money from stocks, bonds, lines of credit and other means, said Robert Nesbitt, a senior vice president at 1st Security. Nonprofits need more time to find public funds and donations.
Private investors can also buy properties that initially offer low returns, betting that rents will keep climbing, said Dennis O’Leary, chief lending officer at the bank.
“In King County, it would be extremely rare that an organization such as the Southeast Seattle Senior Foundation could compete with the for-profit companies that would be looking to acquire an apartment building like this in the city of Seattle,” O’Leary said. “Very rare.”
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BROWN GOT WORD just a day after submitting his offer.
The sellers had selected him, if he was willing to bump up the price slightly. They landed on $6.4 million, he said.
It’s a rare win, one that not every group can replicate. Brown had known the previous owner, and the organization had other property he could offer as collateral.
“We would not have gotten this apartment if we didn’t have relationships in the community,” Brown said.
Now, he needs to raise the money to keep the building affordable. His goal: $2.5 million.
As he worked on details to close the sale throughout late April, Brown said he was also staying up into the early morning hours emailing city contacts and sending neighborhood residents a link to the organization’s GoFundMe page.
When Wells, who has lived at The Arches for decades, learned the news, she gasped. “Thank God!”
For Wells, her family roots span the blocks surrounding the apartments. In high school, she, her mom and sisters lived at the Brighton Apartments, now run by Brown’s nonprofit. Later, when Wells had moved to The Arches, her grandmother lived in senior housing next door.
On the wall of her living room hangs a gold-framed photo of Wells and her husband, Mark, on their 1998 wedding day at the senior center across the street, white streamers tumbling down from the ceiling and his fist thrust in the air.
“Because we’ve been here for so many years, everybody knows us,” she said. “It’s been a blessing.”
Wells passed along the news to Johnson, who was preparing to work overtime on her day off to make some extra money in case she needed to cover the costs of moving.
“Oh!” Johnson said. “Well that makes my heart happy.”
Still, she said, she’s waiting to see “ink on paper.”
“Because I know how life works.”