[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.
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’ “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.