Sehome Neighborhood Meeting Sheds Light On Rental Housing

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[Guest Writer - Dianne Foster is a retired ARNP, who was lucky to work many years at PeaceHealth Medical Center in the Ob/Gyn department. Previously, she finished her BA in political science from U.W., where she was in SDS and allied with the Seattle Black Panthers to end redlining in the Central District, along with protesting the War Machine. Spent 15 years as the Dem PCO for precinct 246, and continues work on the Bernie Sanders campaign. She also serves on the Sehome Neighborhood Assn. board.]

As a 25-year resident of Sehome Neighborhood, and current vice-president of the Sehome Neighborhood Association, I’d like to share a report on our most recent general meeting from 2/25/20. It was held at the WECU community building on Holly Street, and sadly only five or six long-term residents attended. There were around 30 college students, who spoke up about their shabby living conditions and exorbitant rents. I had taken our newsletter around to about 40 doors, asking people to show up. I explained this was our annual board election, and there were also going to be excellent presentations on the new Aloha subsidized housing complex by Brian Thane from the Bellingham Housing Authority, and information about changes to the Samish Way corridor by city planner Darby Cowles.

Unfortunately, on the ballot for re-election to another two-year term was Mike Hays of Hammer Properties, who does not live in the neighborhood, but owns an ever-increasing number of properties in it. Other candidates were: Russ Sapienza, who rents an apartment on Garden and Chestnut, whose rent has been raised twice in the last two years, and whose building is now being purchased by Hammer. Other candidates were: our current treasurer, who has lived in the neighborhood for over 25 years; a resident of Newell Street; and a neighbor of his. After I objected to a motion to vote on the whole slate at once, we took each candidate one at a time.

Mike Hays spoke and insisted he had been on the board for 10 years, though in actuality it’s only been three years. He refused to answer my questions about how many properties he owns in the neighborhood as opposed to how many he manages. Although on his own bio he identifies himself primarily as a “developer,” and only secondarily as the owner of a rental management company.

Then a parade of college students got up, one-by-one, and shared their experience of renting from Hammer, the horrific living conditions and their attempts to report problems that were met with abusive treatment. One woman asked, ”Would you want your own daughter to live in one of these places?” She said she was referring to standing water in the basement and mold. At one household I contacted I was told that Hammer charges a $42 service fee for any monthly payment made on-line. Another told me that a group of six of them had each paid a $50 application fee after being assured they would get the place, but when they didn’t, the fee was not refunded.

Photo by Jane Bright
Photo by Jane Bright

We know that college students often have to choose between paying tuition and buying food; what can be done to mitigate this exploitation? Most of the houses on High, Garden, Billy Frank Jr. and the cross streets, are owned or managed by Hammer. You can see rows of “for rent” signs now standing like crosses in a cemetery as you pass them. At one point last year, around 10 signs were piled in a front yard on High and Maple Streets; Hammer said it was a “bunch of drunk students”—the very people that provide his income! It reminded me of my favorite line from Mel Brooks’ The Princess Bride, “Your excellency, the peasants are revolting.”

One possible solution to slumlordism would be for WWU to provide more affordable student housing, as Whatcom College is now doing. Another would be for the city to exercise monopoly regulations such as no company or individual is allowed to own more than six to eight properties inside the city limits. There is a trend on my block, as income inequality becomes the norm, toward young or even middle-aged people who are not students sharing houses. Anti-monopoly rules are becoming ever more important.

It was disturbing to learn that PeaceHealth sold their boarded up historic homes on Billy Frank Jr. Street to Hammer. He plans to tear them down and build apartments. When I brought this up with their external affairs department, (a woman with whom I used to work), she said that had been a mistake—selling to a for-profit realty—and that it wouldn’t happen again. Their other south campus site will most likely become a health care facility in future.

I would like to see a city ordinance drafted to limit the number of landlord-owned properties in the city, and plan to contact a sympathetic council member on the subject. If there is a model out there, that any of you are aware of, please let me know.

About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

Guest Writer is for over 100 articles by individuals who are not regular writers. Their actual name and brief info is listed at the top or bottom of their articles.

Comments by Readers

Thomas R. Scott

Mar 06, 2020

Rather than property count restrictions on all landlords, I’d much prefer to see enforcement on the “bad apples”.

Just a few years ago, we fought hard and obtained a rental inspection program.  Now, would be a good time to follow up on that program fixing the lack of enforcement issues and tweaking where it has some reported and obvious flaws.  It needs more daylight, being the ironically most glaring issue.

Besides as one namless but well known bad apple has already done, the work around for some of the suggested ordinances is to simply create more LLCs or other arrangements such as straw-man purchasers/owners. What that will likely result in is the larger “operaterators” who operate in bad faith will simply have the field cleared for more acquizitions. Case Study from Bellingham:  Without an ordinance, one such bad apple has created a plethora of companies and used other individuals names to circumvent their attrocious reputation (both with the City and with prospective rentors).  We are talking of a company that is infamous for its poor treatement and simply bad business practices which has plagued Bellingham for decades.  Thus, they are well instructed AND well practiced on the first and easiest method to get around some of this article’s suggestions. 

That unintended consequence of restricting property counts will likely result in the continuation of the unfair business advantage that the bad actors have over the good.  It will pull up the corn from the field leaving more and more weeds!

Before we throw up more laws and restrictions which, if history repeats, will simply be ignored, let’s fix and improve what we have.

 - Tom

 

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Dianne Foster

Mar 07, 2020

Tom,

Fascinating;   I would be interested in hearing more about this “bad apple”,  and  how their proxy owners operate;    you can private message me,  or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

One thing I liked about Elizabeth Warren was her focus on anti-monooly enforcement,  which Reagan announced would never be upheld again;  you know,  those quaint laws made during the Depression-era,   like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act,   which the corporate Reagan detested as no longer necessary….  we need to bring them back into vogue.

I have subsequently learned from a previous Sehome board member,  that WWU and COB entered into an agreement,  about 40 years ago or so,  that Western would not provide housing for its 18,000 students,  but the city would absorb them.   This was news to me,  and I need to uncover if this was verbal or in writing.

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Todd Lagestee

Mar 08, 2020

The solution isn’t to mess with private property rights, which are onerous at best…and probably Constitutional…

The solution is for WWU to build student housing over the parking lots. WWU can build enough housing to create a surplus of supply in the market, which will drive down rents. WWU can build the housing to create a lowering of costs for students to attend college. WWU could put green roofs on the tops to allow for student gardens and that would eliminate the runoff issue currently associated with the parking lots.

Why won’t WWU build this? Who knows…but City officials could start to exercise every avenue and lever to do it… We need to empower our City Council and Mayor to hold WWU accountable…instead of allowing street vacations to clear entire city blocks of all trees like at 32nd and Ferry for more apartments that don’t even start to address the housing issue and just contribute to more climate change.

 

Todd Lagestee

(Posted as a private citizen on matters of public concern)

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Dianne Foster

Mar 11, 2020

Todd,

A previous board member,  Tim Hofstettler,  told me that many years ago,  WWU and COB made an agreement that WWU would not build housing for more than a few thousand students,  and would let the neighborhoods absorb the seasonal fluctuations.  I need more research on this.  as I don’t know if it was in writing or verbal.  Do you know anything?

When BHA director Brian Thane spoke to SNA,  he siad they can’t get more subsidized housing because the competition from private sector for-profits is too high.    The last time I remember any anti-monopoly law being enforced was the breakup of Ma Bell.     But of course laws are only enforced if the people want and demand them to be.   No wonder the younger generation is so cynical  -   they’re up against the 1%.   (And notably,  most of the houses in my ‘hood owned by absentee landlords are not students;  they are young working people who will probably never own their own place).

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