Affordable rentals vanish as apartments go condo
Many renters in fast-changing Delridge, one of the last affordable enclaves in Seattle, simply can't afford to become buyers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Delridge 2006: $860
Seattle 2006: $1,164
Delridge 2007: $978
Seattle 2007: $1,217
Julie Martin has daily headaches and sleepless nights.
Her apartment in West Seattle's Delridge neighborhood is going condo and Martin, a single mother, is stressed about finding a new home near her daughter's school and her job at the local YMCA.
It won't be easy. Vacancies in the Seattle area have sunk to their lowest level in years and rents are climbing.
"I'm hoping for a miracle," said Martin, 36, who now rents a two-bedroom for $925.
Buying her apartment at the West Ridge Park complex, offered to her for $233,000, is out of the question. "We're paycheck to paycheck. It's pretty much out of my range," she said.
Renters across the Puget Sound region are feeling a similar pinch. Nearly 7,000 apartments in the area were converted to condos last year.
Few conversions, though, will have as much impact as the one at West Ridge Park.
Some neighborhood activists see the loss of 239 apartments at West Ridge Park as a tipping point in Delridge, a historically blue-collar community that stretches from the Nucor Steel mill below the West Seattle Bridge all the way south to the city limits and White Center.
Delridge has long provided affordable housing in an overlooked, almost rural pocket of Seattle. Tucked in a forested valley between West Ridge, the city's highest point, and the Duwamish River, it's been home to shipbuilders, longshoremen and steelworkers, then waves of Asian, Latino and African immigrants.
But that is changing as the area becomes more affluent. "People have discovered Delridge," said Ron Angeles, a Delridge native who works for the city's Department of Neighborhoods.
Delridge has gone from sleepy hollow to a "gem in the rough," said Dave Kirzinger, a partner in Mosaic Homes, a British Columbia-based company that bought West Ridge Park this year for $33.8 million. The previous owner, a partnership headed by Seattle developer Henry Popkin, bought the 17-acre property two decades ago for $823,000.
At the nearby Sylvan Ridge development, 179 "San Francisco-style town homes" are being marketed for buyers who want quick access to "fresh ingredients at Pike Place Market" or to "catch their favorite band on Capitol Hill."
"The problem is all these new town houses are for sale, not for rent. There's no replacement housing for families," Martin said.
And when you take away rental housing, "you take away some of the diversity that has made Delridge what it is," said neighborhood activist Pete Spalding.
Money in, flavor out
A community of dells and ridges, Delridge, with a population of more than 30,000, is actually a collection of neighborhoods such as Youngstown, Pigeon Point and Westwood. Whites are a minority in Delridge, where households tend to be larger and poorer than they are in Seattle as a whole.
Delridge housing prices have nearly tripled in the last decade, and appreciated at a greater rate than citywide prices, according to a Seattle Times analysis. Household income in Delridge — while still below the citywide average — also increased at a greater rate than it has citywide.
Rents, too, are climbing faster in Delridge than in the rest of Seattle. The average Delridge rent increased 14 percent over the past year compared with 5 percent citywide.
"With the new money coming in, some of the flavor goes out," said Gary Thomsen, a Delridge native and video-production teacher, whose students at Chief Sealth High School made a historical documentary called "The Diaries of Delridge."
Remnants of the old Delridge, such as the Tug Tavern and its "blue collar happy hour," now share street space with an Allstar Fitness club and a new Home Depot. For-sale signs and land-use action notices are popping up like thistles and bindweed along nearby Longfellow Creek.
"There are so many land-use signs they must be running out of boards," said Paul Fischburg, former director of the nonprofit Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association (DNDA).
Delridge 2006: $860
Seattle 2006: $1,164
Delridge 2007: $978
Seattle 2007: $1,217
Almost 1,800 new houses, condos and apartments have been built or permitted in the last three years, while 459 have been demolished. "The floodgates opened about three years ago," Fischburg said.
High Point a catalyst
The boom started with public investments. The city built a new library, community center and police station.
The Seattle Housing Authority followed with what many see as the single biggest catalyst for change, a sweeping makeover of High Point, a subsidized housing project.
At High Point, 716 apartments built for World War II defense workers have been demolished. They will be replaced within the next few years with a mix of apartments and houses — 796 for low- and moderate-income residents, and 804 at market rates, including some selling for almost $500,000.
New housing now seems to dot every Delridge street. Spalding said changes on his dead-end street are typical: Two single-family houses and two vacant lots will soon become two new single-family houses and 12 town houses.
With prices soaring, Fischburg said it's critical to preserve apartments. But that isn't easy, not even for the neighborhood association, which has built almost 200 units of affordable housing and turned the old Cooper School into a cultural center.
When West Ridge Park went up for sale last year, Fischburg's group put together an offer that would have preserved almost half of the apartments, while converting the remainder to condos.
Popkin, the seller, rejected the deal. The nonprofit's funding relied on city and state grants that would have taken almost a year to secure. In a fast-moving market, "we just couldn't compete with the time frames of private developers," Fischburg said.
Softening the blow
Some feel it's too late to stop gentrification in Delridge. But they're seeking ways to soften the blow.
The DNDA is studying the possibility of developing affordable housing on 15 acres at the former Louisa Boren Junior High School, which the Seattle School District uses as a temporary home for schools while they are renovated.
Housing advocates say they'll continue to push state lawmakers for stronger renter protections — such as earlier notice of condo conversions — that they failed to win this year in Olympia.
City Councilman Tom Rasmussen also hopes to expand a new city program that helps nonprofits buy property years before they're ready to develop it — and before skyrocketing prices put properties out of their reach.
City planners also want to look at improving the design of new town houses, which are sometimes built right up to the sidewalk with six-foot high fences. "I call it the stockade effect," said Rasmussen, who chairs the council's housing committee. "It walls people off and it's dehumanizing."
Kirzinger, the new owner of West Ridge Park, said the complex, already pleasant and grassy with a swimming pool and tennis court, will get a face-lift.
Mosaic, which has built town houses in British Columbia and converted apartments in Bellevue, Kent and Everett, plans to put new roofs on all the buildings, replace all siding and windows, and spruce up interiors. It will take at least two years to turn all 239 apartments to condos, Kirzinger said, and prices likely will range from the "low 200s to up around $300,000."
Based on industry experience, Kirzinger expects no more than a dozen West Ridge Park tenants to buy their units. "You have to remember, people rent for a reason," he said.
As for displaced renters, Kirzinger notes that industry analysts predict 9,000 new apartments will be built in the Seattle area in the next three years.
But that won't be soon enough for Martin and some of her neighbors, who will lose their apartments this year.
Alisa Goodwill-Frederick said she expects to move south of the city, maybe to Des Moines, because she can't afford a nice place closer to her job at Group Health on Capitol Hill. "I'm looking south because it's cheaper. That's the only reason," she said.
Martin hopes she can keep her daughter, 9, in Seattle schools and that a move isn't traumatic for her foster daughter, 4. She figures she'll have to take out a loan to cover $3,000 in moving expenses. She has a decent job as administrative director at the West Seattle YMCA but she's worried about finding a place she can afford.
She saw a town house for rent at High Point, but it was $1,600 a month. Again, beyond her price range. "I feel a little bit traumatized because I'm not in control," she said.
Martin's former neighbor Norman Mac Leod considers himself lucky.
The 43-year-old freight broker just moved out of the $1,110-a-month apartment he and his family rented for seven years at West Ridge Park. They couldn't afford the $286,000 asking price for their unit, Mac Leod said.
So he ended up in Everett renting a spacious house he calls "awesome" although it's more expensive than his last place and much farther from his job in South Seattle.
He'll pay almost $5,000 more per year for housing and drive about 12,000 miles farther in his commute.
"For me it went fine. But I'm probably in the minority," he said.
Staff reporter Justin Mayo and staff researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org