A marketing video called the apartment building a “distinct and rare” investment opportunity. The people living there called it home. One tenant says of the rising rent, “We panicked. It was like, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’”
When Roger Quiring looks at the Seattle building where he’s lived since 1990, he sees home. He had been living in homeless shelters for 15 years when a woman he calls his “street mother” helped get him an apartment there, at First Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle.
Quiring was living at 104 Pine St. when he got a job cleaning the downtown Seattle YMCA, met his wife and adopted a kitten abandoned in a dumpster.
Not everyone sees the old brick building that way, however. In a video marketing 104 Pine St. for sale last year, real-estate company Colliers was “excited to present the most creative investors with a distinct and rare opportunity to re-imagine one of the most sought-after, iconic corner parcels of real estate in all of Seattle,” noting its proximity to “a critical mass of impressive tech employers” like Amazon, Google and Facebook.
The difference between what Quiring sees and what Colliers saw matters because of what happened next.
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The building was bought by an out-of-town company for $14.9 million, the rents were increased more than 20 percent and the new owner began work as many tenants moved out, renovating apartments rather than renting them out again.
Construction filings also show plans to enlarge some units, make seismic upgrades, add a rooftop deck and build a small basement gym.
It’s a story that’s played out repeatedly across Seattle’s red-hot housing market, leaving inspectors and politicians seeking answers, with scant data and limited tools to prevent rent shocks and tenant displacement.
Along First Avenue and in neighborhoods all over the city where working-class renters once lived, many throwback buildings have been transformed.
The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) issued a violation notice last week accusing 1st and Pine Property Owner LLC of using rent hikes to avoid the city’s tenant-relocation assistance ordinance (TRAO), which requires a relocation license and payments to low-income tenants who make way for renovations.
The violation says the company engaged in substantial work, such as ceiling replacements and painting, and says it now owes more than $100,000 in penalties — $1,000 for each day since the tenants were initially told about the rent increases.
“They’re trying to scare everybody out,” said Quiring, 63.
1st and Pine’s manager, Los Angeles real -state investment executive Jerry Wise, is disputing the violation, saying the renovations are less than substantial. Wise met with SDCI officials Monday.
The company didn’t apply to go through the relocation process because it didn’t intend or want to evict everyone, he said. The rent hikes were part of a complex purchase deal and announced under the old owner before the sale closed, Wise said.
“We were taking the high road. We had every right to throw everybody out on the street and we didn’t,” he said Tuesday. “Now we’re working with the city to try to come up with a solution that goes above and beyond the compensation that TRAO gives.”
Compensating tenants who lived in the building before the rent increases could prove challenging, however. More than half are already gone, Cindy Quiring said.
One former neighbor told the Quirings she would be moving in with her brother in Puyallup. Another said she would be moving in with her son in Ephrata in Eastern Washington.
“We knew most of the people in the building. Everybody looked out for everybody,” Cindy Quiring said. “I cried when they had to start leaving.”
It’s unclear how 1st and Pine’s relocation-law violation will be resolved and whether the tenants now at the building will stay.
SDCI has opened tenant-relocation cases against 16 building owners in the past two years, but the agency’s records show just one penalty meted out over that time, totaling $1,000, and just two cases in which landlords have paid tenants. Ideally, the agency opens a case before any tenants move and the landlord voluntarily complies with the law.
Nine of the 16 cases are still open, according to SDCI’s records. The agency relies on tenant complaints to investigate and suspects the problem is underreported.
Seattle’s population and tech-business booms and property-tax increases have incentivized luxury renovations and rent hikes, and zoning restrictions have concentrated new construction where older apartments stand, sometimes causing cheaper housing to disappear.
From 2007 to 2016, the number of housing units in King County priced for people making at least 80 percent of the area’s median income surged from about 60,000 to 178,000, according to a regional task force on homelessness. Meanwhile, the number for people making less than 50 percent plunged, from more than 100,000 to 69,000.
During that time, 104 Pine St. was an exception to the rule — a holdover from another era, when First Avenue was a gritty stretch with some of the city’s cheapest housing and some of its greatest views.
Constructed in 1909 and long known as The Atwood, the 55-unit building was for decades owned by a local family that kept the rents relatively low. There were hard times, when street crime spilled in. Then the building bounced back, shabby but clean.
There were people of diverse ages, races and means living together near jobs and transit, said David Latimer, the building’s former caretaker. Tenants stuck around.
“It was pretty cool. We had a mix,” said Latimer, who said he was let go after the sale.
Despite living steps away from Pike Place Market, some tenants were until late last year paying less than $1,000 per month for studios and one-bedroom apartments.
But with Seattle’s economy racing and the average rent for a King County studio soaring from $792 to $1,370 over a decade, The Atwood’s tenants were living on borrowed time.
“Most places around here are million-dollar condos, when you look at the big picture in downtown Seattle,” said Brent Zimmerman, who shares his studio with his dog and cat.
The market came knocking when the Crim family put the building up for sale, with an investor in August submitting plans to turn it into a boutique hotel.
That investor later withdrew, allowing the building to be purchased in December by 1st and Pine, which is registered in Delaware.
Based on the deal, the Crim family’s property-management company sent notices to the building’s tenants telling them to expect rent hikes Jan. 1. Family representative William Crim, of Mount Vernon, didn’t return requests for comment.
The Quirings were paying under $1,000 per month before a modest increase last summer. Then their rent rose 22 percent, from $1,065 to $1,300, including utilities.
For other residents, the increases were significantly higher, Zimmerman said.
Elsewhere in Seattle in recent years, tenants have seen hikes of more than 100 percent. But for people living paycheck to paycheck, a few hundred dollars a month can be devastating.
“We panicked,” said Cindy Quiring, 55. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ We don’t have much left over for food. We’re doing the best we can.”
Another rent increase would spell trouble for the Quirings because they lack money for moving costs, they said. Like some in the building, they rent month-to-month.
“We would probably put our stuff in storage and become homeless,” said Cindy Quiring, who has a chronic illness. “I would be worried about getting my medicine.”
The electrical and construction violations at 104 Pine St. are being taken care of, and the renovations will benefit the tenants, Wise said, noting electric heaters are being installed to replace unreliable steam radiators.
“The building was just not well-maintained and we’re trying to fix it,” he said.
But tenants said the building became a messy construction zone last month, disturbing them and their pets as they wondered whom the changes were meant for. On a recent evening, lumber sat stacked in a hallway.
1st and Pine’s management company was slow to give Zimmerman a replacement key and had work done inside his apartment during time he didn’t sign off on, he said.
“They’re treating us like numbers, feeding their construction project with our higher rents so we can be kicked out and not see the results,” the 39-year-old said.
An employee of the management company, Guide Property Services, declined to comment on the situation at the building.
Established in 1990, during a previous housing crunch, the city’s relocation law mandates extra notice and payments of now $3,658 to eligible households, with the cost split between the landlord and the city.
To qualify, a household must make less than 50 percent of the area’s median income — up to $38,400 per year for a couple last year. The Quirings would qualify, they said. Zimmerman might not, despite working in retail, he said.
The law applies only when a landlord plans to carry out major work. That may be happening at 104 Pine St., but big increases aren’t always accompanied by remodeling.
That’s why Councilmember Kshama Sawant began drafting a bill last year that targets so-called economic evictions, she said. A landlord raising the rent more than 10 percent in a year would need to pay departing tenants a sum equal to three months’ rent.
The rule would apply regardless of remodeling, the landlord would pay the entire amount and the income-eligibility threshold would be higher than under the relocation law.
A couple making up to $57,600 per year would qualify.
“Landlords are looking to make more profit by renting to people who are able to pay more for the same unit,” Sawant said. “Rents are completely unstable, and ordinary people are having to move every few years. That’s not a decent quality of life.”
Portland passed a law last year requiring landlords to pay tenants $2,900 to $4,500 when they raise the rent more than 10 percent, forcing the tenants out. Landlords there sued, arguing the law violates Oregon’s ban on rent control, and Sawant said she expects similar opposition.
Wise has experience with such issues. Tenants in South Pasadena, California, pushed for rent control there in 2016 after a Wise-managed LLC bought their complex and raised the rents, the Pasadena Star-News reported. They later negotiated a deal with Wise that included buyouts for departing tenants.
Hard data on economic evictions in Seattle is lacking, but increases in median rents, growing homelessness and calls from constituents point to a serious problem, Sawant said.
“I can’t live here anymore. It’s too expensive,” said Mike Franks, a longtime gate-security employee for the Mariners and tenant at the Pine Street building.
Franks said he wants to stay at the building through the summer, then move to the Philippines to live with relatives. Otherwise, the 56-year-old may try to camp under a bridge near Safeco Field, he said, contemplating an uncertain future.
“The anxiety has been bothering me,” Franks said. “Being in Seattle is out of reach.”