Condo Conversions

By the late 1970's, apartment vacancy rates in some parts of Seattle stood below 1%.  Spurred by this burgeoning housing crisis, the Urban Development and Housing Committee of the Seattle City Council held a public hearing on May 17, 1978, to listen to testimonies about the condominiumization of apartment buildings, the reduction in the availability of rentals, and the displacement of tenants without the economic means to buy.

As a result of this hearing, Ordinance 107500 was passed by the Full Council on July 17, 1978, "declaring a Housing Emergency and imposing a moratorium on the conversion of certain rental units to condominiums, and providing penalties for violations."

The full recording contains statements from members of local and state government, citizens, social advocates, and industry members. Here are a few voices from that hearing.

Clifton C. Albright, President of Albright Realty, spoke in favor of condominiumization:

There are many benefits to the city for the conversion of condominiums. It stabilizes the area because pride of ownership. The buildings are improved, and things of that nature. It also raises the tax base, and that is something the city is always looking for - more money to be able to use. No housing is being taken off of the market, they are just being substituted for buyers. It also provides permanent housing for the people that want to buy. Condominiums and apartments are energy savers, and condominiums and energy savings will be with us forever.

Now what can we do for the tenants? New construction requires that we have one-for-one parking. I think the buildings that are being converted where they would affect the low income and the elderly would be buildings that have no parking whatsoever. I think that would be something that the council might want to consider. We can give the tenants more time to move. And I think it is too bad where people feel like they have to be pushed out of their unit because I know that it would be a traumatic experience. We can make it easier to find new housing. I was at a meeting yesterday where members of the building industry and the private house owners association were meeting together to see what we could do to try to feed information back and forth, where people do have housing available. And we can have controls for older buildings. There are many buildings that are being converted to condominiums that should not be converted and they are appealing to the low price market, but they really are not good units for condominiums. And that's all I have to say and thank you very much.

Sharon Feigon, Spokesperson for the Seattle Tenants Union, called for a moratorium to prevent further housing conversions:

We feel, as do many other neighborhood and church groups, that an immediate moratorium prohibiting further conversion of scarce housing into condominiums is essential at this time, and the moratorium should remain in effect until the City formulates a conversion policy consistent with its responsibilities towards all tenants.

It is clearly evident with our work that Seattle tenants are faced with an intolerable situation. We receive calls daily from tenants who have received rent increases of 25-50%, sometimes as high as 100%. Other tenants are presented with 20 day notices, which is all the state Landlord-Tenant Act requires, to vacate their homes. They are thrown into the streets to seek affordable housing that does not exist. In the past year, over half the calls that the Seattle Tenants Union received about evictions were for evictions without cause. The elderly, families with children, low- and even average-income tenants simply can't afford higher rents, let alone the costs of relocating. Older tenants, on fixed incomes, and often physically unable to search for new housing, are irreparably devastated by these kinds of evictions. In the past week, I have spoken to many tenants in this kind of situation.

The City has not formed any consistent and comprehensive policy to safeguard rental housing. Instead, an incompatible assortment of conflicting policies have deepened the City's housing crisis. On the one hand, Seattle has stated a commitment to provide low-cost housing and the protection of our neighborhoods. On the other hand, revitalization of areas such as Pike Place, Pioneer Square, Denny Regrade and Broadway have shown, at best, neglect of our needs. At worst, the rapid construction of condominiums and high rent buildings betrays an unstated policy of displacement of the less affluent of America's most livable city. Revitalization must be made more beneficial to the neighborhoods now being revitalized.

Seattle's housing crisis will be solved only if we address the needs of all citizens. A comprehensive approach must include preservation and new construction of low-cost housing. It must be based on our needs, not to fatten the pocketbooks of developers and speculators. Furthermore, the city must provide protection against exorbitant rents and unjust evictions. A moratorium is the first step towards this end. Until we determine what conditions conversions are beneficial to the city and tenants - not simply beneficial to a handful of developers and speculators - the city must act to preserve what little rental housing remains.

Mayor Charles Royer's statement, read by Bob Royer, spoke to the need for a broad range of housing options:

Seattle is thought of as being a city of single-family houses, but the fact is that nearly a third of our people are tenants in multi-family housing. The increasing number of conversions to condominium from rental housing has made a substantial number of our citizens uneasy, and growing numbers of them are communicating their concerns to the mayor. Among the fundamental responsibility of society is the provision of shelter. The mayor is concerned that a great many people who lose housing through conversions are having, or will have, special problems in finding decent, affordable replacement housing. Today's hot housing market is a sellers' market. The middle-to-low income groups and those on fixed incomes often can't afford to buy the space they now rent. Subsequently they cannot find other housing.

It is a compelling coalition forming, as you can see from the people in the hall. It is a coalition of the elderly to whom we owe so much, and of the young, the new families, just beginning, on whom we, in the city, depend so much. It is a potentially powerful coalition and one to which government, as well as the private sector, must respond. The mayor believes that it is best to respond early, as you have done, and positively. This is an issue around which confrontation can quickly develop.

We long ago discarded the notion that the full benefits of citizenship depend on the ownership of property. It is in everyone's interest, landlord and tenant alike, to make certain that a range of housing opportunities exist for a range of incomes and people. Accordingly, the mayor is delighted that Councilman Hildt and Representatives Burns and Charnley have taken the initiative on this issue. Early diagnosis and treatment of this problem is the best approach.

And Margaret Thornton spoke as a displaced citizen supporting the moratorium on the conversion of apartments to condominiums:

I am speaking as an urban refugee, and I urge support for the Seattle Tenants Union's proposal for a moratorium on the conversion of apartments to condominiums in Seattle until the full impact of this procedure is carefully studied. Tenants have made it possible for apartment owners to acquire their properties. It doesn't seem fair now that we are now to be summarily pushed out of our homes to enable the owners to maximize profits as the advertisement of a well-known realty firm contends. I believe all displaced persons support a moratorium on apartment conversions.

Listen to the entire hearing in Digital Collections. Citation: Urban Development and Planning Committee Hearing, May 17, 1978. Event ID 4620, Seattle City Council Legislative Department Audio Recordings.

Other relevant legislation includes Council Bills 99590, 99772, and 99787. See also Michael Hildt Subject Files (Record Series 4636-02), Box 12, and Legislative Department Central Reference File (Record Series 4601-02), Box 34, Folder 10.

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