To live in a condominium at 99 Union Street is to live in an “estate in the sky,” listings there advertise. Managed by Four Seasons, which runs a hotel in the lower 10 floors of the 21-story high-rise, the building is billed as an exclusive vertical neighborhood for the monied classes.
Expansive balconies on many of the 36 homes offer dramatic views of Elliott Bay, now sparkling behind a demolished Alaskan Way Viaduct. Between the ground-floor restaurant and the top-floor terrace, the owner of a condominium there may not have much reason to set foot outside the building.
But a new report argues it’s unclear how many owners of condominiums there have ever lived in the luxe environs they’ve paid up to $11 million to own, because the identities of nearly half the owners are hidden behind trusts and limited liability companies (LLCs).
Effectively, they’re secret.
That secrecy is a problem, according to the report on Seattle’s luxury real estate market, from the left-of-center Washington, D.C. think tank Institute for Policy Studies, because it makes it hard to determine whether Seattle, like a growing number of cities, is a place for the world’s wealthiest to park their cash, leaving housing units empty as the city grows less affordable for its middle- and lower-class residents.
The Institute for Policy Studies isn’t alone in worrying over the identities of Seattle home buyers. In 2018, the Treasury Department mandated that cash buyers of King County homes costing more than $300,000 register the property’s ultimate owner with the Treasury’s financial crimes unit — even if, on paper, the home is owned by an LLC.
Buying property through a trust or LLC is perfectly legal. In downtown Seattle, mom-and-pop Airbnb operators use LLCs to register second units. Privacy-minded individuals may have an interest making it more difficult for Nosy Nancies to find out where they live. In Medina, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates have used LLCs and trusts to keep their names off the deeds of their homes.
But as a growing international elite has snapped up property in places like London, New York and Vancouver, a movement of transparency advocates has rallied behind efforts to ensure that property owners’ names are made public.
In New York, a new law took effect last month making the name of every property owner in the state public information. And in British Columbia, lawmakers introduced a bill to create a government registry of beneficial property owners — the people ultimately behind the trusts and LLCs — which if implemented, would go online next year.
The goal of such efforts, advocates say, is to ensure that it’s easier to resolve property disputes, track property ownership patterns and find homes sitting empty while their owners live elsewhere, which can drive up the cost of property in cities already strapped for space.
There are a couple main caveats to the snappily written report, however.
First, in the report’s survey of ownership patterns at eight high-end Seattle condominium buildings, it found that about one in 10 condos are owned by trusts or LLCs. That’s roughly in line with the proportion of properties owned by shell companies in King County as a whole.
In both cases, trust and LLC ownership increases as property price increases, so rates are higher on the Eastside and lower in condos like 98 Union, next door to 99 Union. There, where the more modest homes range in price from roughly $300,000-$1 million, only two out of 76 condos are owned by LLCs.
That signals that ownership dynamics in Seattle’s condo market aren’t all that different than the market for single family homes, which isn’t what you’d expect if oligarchs were caching their millions in Seattle condos.
Even if they were, top-market condos still make up only a fraction of the Seattle housing market, though their numbers are growing. By 2021, 1,664 high-end condos will open across five downtown buildings, with 900 more on the horizon at one location alone — Seattle House, in Denny Triangle.
Still, development advocates say luxury condos aren’t affecting affordability down market.
“It’s easy to imagine that there are millionaires lined up around the block waiting to buy high-rise condos,” said Roger Valdez, the director of pro-building group Seattle for Growth. “But the fact is that most of the builders in the city are building small and medium-sized apartments, houses and townhouses.”
The report also uses voter registration to determine how many condo owners live in their units, finding that in one building, only 20% of people registered to vote at an address owned the condominium. But if units are owned by trusts and LLCs, voter registration doesn’t match ownership by default, meaning the metric is a very imperfect proxy. Plus, plenty of condo owners lease their units to full-time renters.
Report author Chuck Collins said the report’s biggest takeaway is that the city needs to pay close attention to the market for luxury condos.
“If I were your doctor, I’d tell you you’re at risk,” said Chuck Collins, the author of the report. “You need to monitor this closely. We want you to do a check-up in a year.”
A Four Seasons representative did not respond to requests for comment about 99 Union. The building, which opened just before the housing market tanked in 2009, initially struggled to sell units and was sued for millions by contractors claiming they had not been paid for their work.
Even back then, the high proportion of buyers who shrouded their identities behind LLCs drew notice — but not all the shell companies were doing a great job of hiding owners’ names.
One LLC had the same P.O. box as several businesses headed by telecom magnate Bruce McCaw. Another was the name of its founder, a high-tech entrepreneur, spelled backwards.
Today, too, piercing the veil behind some of the LLCs at the building isn’t difficult.
Simon LLC and JRD King LLC, which recently purchased three condos in the building for a combined $18.6 million, are both registered to the Diamond family, owner of Diamond Parking.
The graphic in this article has been updated to accurately portray condominium building locations.