Condo conversions no panacea

Conventional wisdom tells us that the more units of housing we build, the more affordable they should be. But here in Seattle exactly the opposite is true. Runaway growth has correlated directly with higher rents and an increase in the number of existing low cost units that are demolished to make way for new more expensive development. Growth also has been accompanied by an alarming number of units lost to condominium conversion.

Upzoning property for greater density only increases the pressure to tear down existing housing. Older duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and single-family rentals are particularly susceptible. As for condo conversions, an April Seattle Times article explains how 9,200 apartments have been converted to condos since 2000, county-wide.

In the city we see the same trend. Just this past year, between June of 2005 and May of 2006, Seattle lost more than 2,000 housing units to condo conversions and 681 to demolition, of which the great majority had been home to low-income renters.

These dramatic housing losses were described by Department of Planning and Development's Director Diane Sugimura in a report released recently to Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen's housing committee. When Rasmussen expressed concern, Sugimura merely shrugged it off as if it was an acceptable natural outgrowth of market forces. She offered no solutions, merely pointing to the fact that state law restricts Seattle's right to impose further restrictions on the process of condominium conversion.

Under state law, tenants evicted due to conversion are given only $500 in relocation and a 90-day notice. They get first right to buy their units, but most have no access to resources to help them do so. Owners must meet some nominal code requirements (which apparently they routinely ignore) when they ready the units for sale. Tenants, even those who've lived years in a building, simply get the boot. As for housing demolitions, tenants receive up to $2,000 in relocation assistance but no first right to buy their units.

Twenty years ago in Seattle, we had a demolition control law that required developers to replace units they demolished and at comparable price. It often deterred developers from even proceeding with demolition. The ordinance lasted for nearly a decade, until courts ruled that it violated state law. Despite promises from previous city councils and mayors to replace these controls with something legally defensible, no action was ever taken.

Allowing these losses to continue negates the region's best efforts at stemming the tide of homelessness. The Ten-Year Plan's leaders recently touted the funding of 1,300 new subsidized units of housing countywide. But a handful of private developers remove 2-3 times that number of low cost units each year for condominium conversion or demolition and that doesn't count still more low cost rentals lost each year to abandonment and plain old rent increases. The current plan to end homeless is nothing but a cruel hoax so long as it ignores housing losses due to the forces of redevelopment.

Currently under the direction of Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, the City Council is putting together a study of housing losses in four of Seattle's neighborhoods - the Capitol Hill, the Central Area/Southeast Seattle, Downtown and the University District. In addition to compiling units lost to demolition and conversion in recent years, they'll identify units we are losing in these areas and city-wide due to speculative sale. In Seattle's hot market, dozens of older low cost apartments are being sold to speculators. A few superficial repairs are made to the buildings and then rents are jacked up $200 to $300. Hundreds of additional low income renters in our city are being displaced now due to this trend as well.

In the fall, the results of the council's study will be reviewed and a task force of citizens will be making recommendations for council action. There is movement of some kind after years of ignoring this critical issue. But do we need to wait for a study in light of these staggering housing losses and the consequences of so many getting evicted from their homes?

The city should implement a moratorium on condominium conversions. If an ordinance can't be crafted to get around barriers in state law, the mayor and City Council should go to Olympia in the next session and get state provisions changed. The moratorium should remain in place until the city gets back whatever discretion it needs and adopts strict limits on the total number of units that can be converted each year and guarantees adequate relocation to displaced tenants.

The city also should implement an immediate moratorium on housing demolitions at least in cases where apartments of 10 or more units are slated for removal. It should remain in place until promises from past elected leaders are fulfilled. The city can address this problem without having to wait for legislative changes down in Olympia. It just takes political guts and a willingness to act.

The drive to upzone neighborhoods without first attempting to mitigate or even understand the impact of increased density on our existing housing stock is the single most significant cause of homelessness and growing inequality in our city. From here on out, before we act, let's measure first how a proposed change in land use or housing policy affects the distribution of wealth in our city.

Carolee Colter and John V. Fox head the Seattle Dispacement Coalition. They can be reached at editor@capitol 

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