The monthslong battle between the council member and the developer is over — and as the dust settles, both sides are claiming victory.
As City Councilmember Kshama Sawant geared up for reelection early this year, she tied the plight of residents at Chateau Apartments, a low-slung 21-unit Central Area complex slated for demolition by developer Cadence Real Estate, to her core campaign issue: rent control.
This week, Sawant told her supporters there was good news: The tenants had won — with a little help from her office, which repeatedly flagellated the developer in the court of public opinion.
But the hoopla, timed to coincide with a Monday night reveal of Sawant’s draft rent-control ordinance, may be off the mark.
Tenants at a Tuesday meeting said they don’t feel like they got the win Sawant claims they did against Cadence, which plans to build 70 to 80 market-rate apartments on the site.
Sawant was celebrating Cadence’s announcement last week that low-income Chateau residents would be first in line for units at two nearby Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) apartments. Chateau’s federal contract guaranteeing that 14 units be set aside for low-income residents will be transferred to LIHI, ensuring that the amount of federally guaranteed affordable housing in Seattle stays the same.
And the developer has also said it will pay each of the 21 households at Chateau $5,000 in relocation assistance. That’s in addition to up to $3,900 in relocation assistance guaranteed by the city for low-income households, half of which is paid by the developer.
Those commitments don’t solve their problems, tenants say.
The LIHI apartments don’t suit their needs, even when they’re available, they say. Residents without Section 8 vouchers say they feel left out in the cold. No one’s been able to get a firm answer on when the building will be torn down. Sometimes, the developer says 2021; other times, it says within three to five years.
And during a Tuesday night tenants’ meeting called by the developer — which no Cadence representative attended, generating plenty of grumbles from tenants — even a Sawant staffer said he was concerned that the developer might not pay the $5,000 relocation assistance unless tenants continued to fight for it.
Victory, it seems, is far from assured, despite the attention heaped on the issue by Sawant’s office, which has been helping organize tenants since February, when the developer announced it would demolish Chateau.
Late that month, she hosted a press conference calling on Cadence — which says it buys “underutilized” apartment buildings and redevelops them to generate higher-than-market-rate returns — to ensure Chateau residents were able to stay in the Central Area.
“Cadence has the responsibility to make sure they have affordable and accessible homes to go to in the neighborhood,” Sawant said at the time. “Sky-high rent,” she said, was “driving out” tenants like those who live in Chateau.
As rents increase across Seattle, the relatively lower-priced district has drawn the attention of developers. Chateau is sandwiched between two other forthcoming apartment projects.
Sawant’s staff arranged a meeting of tenants to present demands to the developer in mid-March, and for the most part, the two parties were able to find some kind of consensus, even if the details were unclear. Tenants asked Cadence to pay for all moving expenses up front. Cadence offered $5,000 relocation assistance. Tenants asked the developer to find them housing in the neighborhood. Cadence assured them it would do so.
Two days later, Sawant called a special City Council committee meeting focused largely on the plight of Chateau residents, who testified about needing to leave their homes. At least one was in tears.
Sawant, who was the only council member to attend, acknowledged that Cadence’s plans were perfectly legal. So, she said, “what we really need is citywide rent control.”
Behind the scenes, Cadence was trying to offload Chateau’s federal rent subsidies for 14 apartments. The subsidies can be valuable, because they put the federal government on the line for the difference between 30% of the renter’s income and the market rent. Cadence started negotiations with LIHI in June, asking to be paid $100,000 to transfer the subsidies to the nonprofit.
That price tag prompted Sawant in July to accuse Cadence of “demanding a ransom.”
“You are effectively threatening not just to displace these tenants from their homes, but now from their city altogether,” she wrote in a strongly worded open letter, which she and tenants delivered in person to the developer. A spokesperson for Cadence said selling Section 8 set-asides is standard procedure.
In mid-July, Sawant’s team brought tenants to a design review board hearing for the Chateau redevelopment, one of many stops on the project’s permitting pipeline. The gesture was quixotic, because design review board members are allowed to evaluate projects only on their design merits.
But one after another, tenants stood up before the board and described their heartache at the prospect of leaving home and community.
Cadence’s proposal flunked, but not because of the tenants’ testimony, said review board member Dennis Comer. The design just wasn’t great.
“The design was basically a big block,” he said. “It didn’t engage the community.” Still, he said, the tenants’ stories moved him. “You can’t unhear that.”
A spokesperson for Cadence said the protest at the review board didn’t make a difference in its negotiations over the subsidies transfer and tenant relocation with LIHI, which concluded soon after for a price under $100,000.
LIHI director Sharon Lee called the sale a “win-win” for the two organizations, and an additional win for tenants.
“We think it’s very valuable to retain the subsidies because Seattle has such an incredible housing crisis,” Lee said. “It would have been great if they would have transferred the subsidies to us at no cost,” she said, but “it’s a financial transaction.”
Last week, the two organizations announced the outline of the deal in a letter to tenants.
At the Monday press conference, Sawant celebrated what she termed a “breakthrough victory” for Chateau tenants before the council member unveiled her draft rent-control ordinance. Behind the podium hung red-and-white posters with the slogan, “Chateau tenants won!”
“Without your help, we would have been pushed out of our neighborhood,” Chateau tenant Renee Gordon told Sawant on Monday. “You are the impetus. When we organize and fight back, we win.” More than 100 Sawant supporters cheered her testimony.
But for many people who live at Chateau, the announcement of victory rang hollow.
At the Tuesday tenants’ meeting, worried residents crowded into a basement room at Chateau, growing increasingly upset as it became clear there were still few answers to their most pressing questions: When would they have to move? When would they receive relocation assistance? And where would they go?
Neither of the two LIHI buildings where low-income Chateau tenants are prioritized have parking, worrying older tenants who rely on cars to get around. One building, An Lac, is under construction and Chateau tenants will jump to the top of the application pool for its 69 units. But the other, Abbey Lincoln Court, is full, so Chateau tenants will have to wait for vacancies.
Even Gordon, who’s been at the forefront of organizing tenants, said she’s skeptical about moving to the LIHI buildings. She’s the primary caretaker of her 88-year-old aunt, whom she calls Mother Gordon, and she wants her aunt to be “safe and comfortable,” she said.
And for all Sawant’s talk of rent control, it wouldn’t help the two-thirds of Chateau’s tenants receiving federal Section 8 housing subsidies secure affordable housing — including Mother Gordon.
Section 8 vouchers follow tenants wherever they move, so if they can find a landlord to honor the vouchers, the Gordons’ current payment of roughly $300/month isn’t likely to change.
“Rent control or no rent control, Mother Gordon is still going to pay the same amount in rent,” Gordon said. She’s looking at a two-bedroom near Chateau that rents for $2,800 a month, using her voucher to cover part of the cost.
For Chateau’s market-rate tenants, the announcement isn’t a huge change from the deal they struck in March. And some market-rate tenants won’t be eligible for the LIHI units, which are reserved for people making less than 60% of Seattle’s median income — $52,150 for a two-person household.
Tami Lewis, who’s lived in Chateau since 2011 and pays market rate rent, said she’s frustrated that all the focus seems to be on Section 8 tenants. “I’m upset that y’all are not considering everybody,” she said, walking out of the tenants’ meeting.
If this is victory, it sure doesn’t feel like it, said tenant Stuart Miller, “not at all.” Miller moved into Chateau with his family in February after living in his car. He’s found a plot of land in Florida where he plans to build a house, but needs the $5,000 to make a down payment, he said.
Cadence hasn’t said whether it will pay before or after tenants leave. “If they don’t give us the money until after we leave, we’ll have to live in our car again,” he said.
His partner, Kelly Scott, spoke at Monday’s rally, but said she wishes she hadn’t.
“It embarrassed me to get up there and have them declare victory,” she said. “Because it’s not.”