Ballard apartment residents form union to fight rising rents

SEATTLE -- At age 82, Beverly Gibson has lost quite a bit in recent years: a front tooth in a car accident with a teenager, and her mobility after a recent stroke.

In the coming months, however, she stands to lose one more thing: her apartment - and, perhaps - her independence.

"I knew that as I got older I was going to have to be closer to medical, closer to the busses. I don't drive," she said of her one-bedroom apartment at 30th and Market in Ballard. "I don't know what I'd do (if I had to move). I'm in no condition to go out and look for something."

Gibson, who lives on a fixed income that covers her apartment and food, is one of dozens of residents at Ballard's Lockhaven Apartments who will likely have to move, as a new owner prepares to renovate more than 90 percent of the units there. Numerous residents said in interviews that the property manager expects rents to nearly double after the renovation, although a spokeswoman for the property owner wouldn't specify.

"I don't support that. I think it's ethically and morally wrong," said Jana Bratton, who moved to the apartment complex two years ago and pays $875 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. "If I were to come back November 1st and sign a whole new lease, it will be doubled, which is astronomical and I can't afford that."

"What this has more of an impact on is my neighbors," Bratton said.

A number of residents in the complex are senior citizens, residents said, and some have lived there since the 1960s. Further complicating matters is that some residents received an initial notice to vacate their units within 20 days, a violation of Seattle municipal code, said Bryan Stevens, spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development.

"Tenants cannot be evicted unless there's just cause (i.e. unpaid rent, illegal unit, owner to occupy etc.)," Stevens said in an email. "If demolition of housing or displacement through renovations is expected, then it requires the owner to obtain a tenant relocation license, as some tenants may qualify for financial assistance."

The city gave the owner a violation notice in late September and threatened a $1,000 per-day penalty if the owner did not apply for a relocation license.

A spokeswoman called the distribution of the initial notices a misunderstanding.

"The City of Seattle has a unique program which took time to understand. Once the nuances of the program were clarified, we acknowledged the confusion and immediately rescinded these notices," wrote Kerri Fulks, spokesperson for Lockhaven Apartments, in an email. "We are embracing the process and have been diligent about distributing the packets to our residents."

Lockhaven was sold this summer to Pinnacle, a company headquartered in Seattle. According to their website, Pinnacle oversees some 50 properties in the Seattle area, and apartment and office properties in more than 300 cities in the US and abroad.

Fulks said the first move-outs will now occur in about six months, with more than 90 percent of the residents being displaced over the next year.

When asked about tenants' concerns the rent could double, Fulks wrote, "we expect rents to increase to post renovation market values," in an email.

Low-income residents - those whose income is no more than 50 percent of the median in King County - will qualify for about $3,000 in tenant relocation assistance, the cost of which is split between the city and the owner, Stevens said.

Despite the stipend, Bratton fears many of her neighbors, like Gibson, will be pushed out and unable to afford to return. Residents have formed a tenants union to fight the relocation and rising rents.

"It's just wrong and I don't think (my neighbors) have the resources ," Bratton said. "It's okay to make some noise about it, and if it's wrong, we need to stand up for it."