To own property in Seattle during these boom years is to unwittingly sign up for ongoing correspondence with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pen pals. They’re your new best friends — who invariably boast about how much cash they have.
“Greetings!” goes a typical letter, one of many shared with me by readers. “I am a well-respected Seattle developer who is interested in buying your home. Would you consider a strong offer? All cash — today?”
That was written out in longhand, to give it that homey touch, I guess. It added: “I am willing to allow you to live in the home rent free after closing, to give you some stress-free time to purchase another home.”
These letters have become the spam echo of Seattle’s real estate boom. But lately, with the City Council considering and then passing a major upzone of 27 neighborhoods, it’s maybe gotten a bit more aggressive out in the trenches.
“We’ve had developers knock on the door holding completed purchase-and-sale agreements, for you to sign on the spot,” says Ruby Holland, who lives in her childhood home in Leschi. “That’s predatory, in my view.”
Holland, who started a group called “Keep Your Habitat” to help priced-out Seattleites who wish to stay, has come up with a symbolic way to fight the tidal wave. Instead of those ubiquitous “For Sale” signs, she’s encouraging residents who don’t want to participate to put up “Not For Sale” signs.
“If you want to sell, then by all means do whatever is best for you,” Holland says. “We’re just saying that it can feel alienating to constantly be asked. Now we’ve got developers pounding on the door like ghouls: ‘You ready to give that home up yet?’ It makes you feel like you’re in the way.
“So these signs are meant to say: ‘Have some respect. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ ”
Most of the letters are vague sales pitches, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But some are deceptive. Several dated in the past year inform the homeowner that “the City of Seattle will be voting soon to downgrade this type of zoning, and time is of the essence if you are thinking of selling.”
But the city actually did the opposite. In March it upzoned thousands of parcels, which will increase their values.
Kenneth Ransfer Sr., pastor of Greater Mount Baker Baptist Church, at 25th and Jackson in Seattle’s Central Area, says local churches have been deluged with all types of developer solicitations.
“We’re like the homesteaders in the westerns, being hounded to sell out to the cattlemen,” he said.
So many offer letters came in at one point that the staff started piling them in a large bowl — more than 50 at one point, Ransfer recalls.
But this church had an ace in the hole. It started a pledge program decades ago to pay off the loans on six lots in the heart of Seattle. When it reached that goal, in the mid-2000s, the moment was so symbolically important that the church burned the mortgages.
“We took the loan papers, put them in a special bowl and lit them on fire,” Ransfer said. “Everybody was shouting ‘hallelujah!’ Now we own from corner to corner, free and clear. That was central to our mission as a church — if we can’t be firmly rooted, then how can we ask that of anybody else?”
Staying firmly rooted isn’t always easy in the liquid city. Especially if you live in the “L-zone,” where properties have “lowrise” zoning. Many of these lots were just upzoned, permitting higher, denser construction in exchange for contributions to affordable housing.
That policy is too new to see if it will help make housing more affordable, or fuel the forces already gentrifying the city. But it’s definitely had an effect on Mary Pat DiLeva’s mailbox.
“Sometimes I get three developer letters in the same day,” she says. She’s lived in her Central Area home for 24 years, and it’s now upzoned to allow a five-story apartment building.
“I’ve gotten hundreds of letters, all told,” she said. “I got a pre-signed purchase-and-sale agreement, with a price filled in. I found that kind of offensive, you know? No, I don’t have to sell, but the constant pressure to see your home as a commodity, it wears you down.”
So DiLeva plans to put a “Not For Sale” sign out front. Even if it does nothing to slow the rush.
“It’s a statement,” she said. “It’s guerrilla art or something. Except it’s about old values. It means: ‘Hey, I’ve buried four cats here in the backyard. So no amount of money is going to get me to go until I’m good and ready.’ “