Saturday, May 3, 2014

How it used to be in Seattle housing market

On the corner of 8th and Seneca in Seattle a new building is under construction. I wasn’t certain what it was for, but I suspected it wasn’t for low-income housing. Its frame and positioning of windows resembled that of the building next to it, meaning it was likely another extension to the Virginia Mason (the one that offers “team” care—meaning what?) medical complex. I contemplated the meaning of this for a few moments, then proceeded on my way.

Why did I feel the need to “contemplate” this otherwise ordinary activity? Because I used to live here. Until 1999, at the bottom of a decline under the bridge was a low-income rental unit. It was probably a hotel many decades ago, but had grown too old and decrepit for that purpose. I was paying just $335 a month for a room without a bathroom. Every month we had to cover everything so that a pest control “specialist” could spray the peripheries. In between I employed my own “pest control” method: Every night I would set out a pot of water, and every morning I would find it filled with drowned roaches that had crawled into it.

Given the thin walls between rooms, there were plenty of other “pests” to deal with (mostly the party all-night and pounding bass variety) that were harder to get rid of. I used to place a radio against the wall adjacent to a noisy neighbor, with the dial set to the local AM station that played really old music (big band, Sinatra, Bennett etc.). The funny thing about it was that while it annoyed the neighbor, it put me right to sleep. 

But those were memories from the distant past. Despite the proto-human conditions, the apartment was dirt cheap and it was just a block from downtown Seattle (a really “happening” place compared to “downtown” Kent). But then one day I received a letter stating that an investment company had purchased the building, and that the current management appreciated “serving” all us tenants. Next I received a letter from the new management, stating that I should expect an increase in rent. I didn’t find out what this was until two months later, when I received notice that my rent would increase from $335 to $675 a month! This had to be some kind of joke in poor taste.

But it wasn’t. It obvious that the new management was trying to kick the "riff-raff" out and make room for a more “upscale” clientele. It was an absurd plan, since there were plenty more rental units for that price that were plenty less unsightly and more accommodating. The only advantage this location offered was its proximity to downtown, but I doubted that would be sufficient to entice anyone of the required wage scale; they’d be embarrassed to be seen by their friends and lovers in such a place. The investment company spent some money fixing up the façade of the building, but it would have been impossible to restore the inside without a complete demolition of the guts of the place.

I couldn’t afford to live in the place anymore, making but $7.50 an hour; the rent would eat-up most of my after-tax income. I wondered who would actually pay that kind of rent for the room that I had, and it took another year to find out: I happened to walk past the place for old times sake, and all that was left of the place was a pile of rubble, and it stayed a pile of rubble for about another ten years. In the interim, the presumably “nicer” redbrick apartment in front of it on the street level also eventually found itself on the wrong side of a wrecking ball.

This has been the fate of other low-income rental units in Seattle, particularly on Capitol and First Hills. Where once a mix of people of differing income levels could share the same general vicinity, now plain working stiffs can’t even afford a closet to live in.

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