Skyrocketing Seattle-area rents leave tenants with no easy choices

Dana Jager knew it was time to start seriously apartment hunting when she read the notice taped to her door in early January — her rent was going up $367 starting July 1.

“I wasn’t in that big of a rush to leave right away,” she said. “It’s just a thought that was forced upon me when they presented that increase.”

The 28-year-old single mother has lived in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood nearly her entire life. For the past eight years, Jager and her 10-year-old son have shared a one-bedroom unit there at The Gladstone Apartments. Jager’s job at Fred Meyer nets her enough to make ends meet and pay just over $983 a month in rent, but she said a 37% rent increase would leave them with almost nothing left over at the end of the month.

Tenants in Seattle and across the country face rents that are rising faster than their wages. At the same time, landlords are also feeling the squeeze. They have few other options besides rent increases to address the financial hangover from the pandemic-era eviction moratorium, in addition to surging maintenance costs from a shortage of skilled trades workers.

Median one-bedroom rent in Seattle was $1,710 in July — 9% more than a year ago, according to data from Apartment List. Paychecks haven’t kept up with rents though, and a new study shows that a minimum-wage worker in King and Snohomish counties would have to put in 90 hours a week to afford rent.

Common guidance is that housing should not surpass 30% of monthly income to leave room for other costs and savings. Currently, 4 in 10 renters in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area pay more than 30% of their income in rent, and 1 in 5 spend more than half, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Neighborhoods outside Seattle’s core and cities to the north and south — once considered affordable — sustained the fastest price growth during the past decade. Average rents for one-bedroom apartments in Everett rose by 90% from 2012 to 2022, according to data from CoStar, a commercial real estate data analytics company. Rents in North Seattle, which includes Lake City, jumped 45% in the same time frame.

Eviction cases in King County rose sharply after Seattle’s moratorium ended in February, according to data from the Housing Justice Project, but they still trail behind pre-pandemic levels. In July, 233 evictions were filed in King County, the highest monthly number since the pandemic began, but still below the 373 filed each month in 2019.

Josh Alhadeff, president of the firm DSB Investments that manages The Gladstone, said that the company doesn’t want to push people out, but that some rent increases are necessary to help pay for rising operational costs, such as maintenance.

The pandemic ushered a movement of white collar workers from Seattle to the suburbs after many companies allowed employees to work remotely, said Elliott Krivenko, a data analyst for CoStar. Those working from home sought apartments and homes with more space that fit their budget.

Housing providers blame rent increases on a shortage of units and a surplus of renters. The number of Seattle tenants surged, with renters bypassing homeowners in 2019 for the first time since 1910, according to census data.

They also point to lost rent because of eviction moratoriums and rent freezes during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“I think what a lot of people forget is that there’s a large amount of service that goes into providing housing,” said Sean Flynn, president of the Rental Housing Association of Washington. He emphasized that a shortage of skilled trades workers has driven up maintenance costs, and rising interest rates and property taxes make property management even more expensive.

Standing together to fight rent hikes

At least three of Jager’s neighbors moved out because they couldn’t afford the rent increases, she said. Those who stayed behind decided to organize and push back. Residents argued the building wasn’t worth what the property managers were asking them to pay. Jager and at least five other tenants cited slow maintenance responses to clogged drains, mold in some units and broken balcony panels on the building’s upper level (which tenants and organizers said they fixed).

With the help of the Puget Sound Tenants Union, a Seattle-based grassroots advocacy group, the residents started a campaign. They circulated a petition protesting the rent increases in light of the building’s condition. Of the 28 occupied units, 24 of them signed on. They organized “phone zaps,” where they’d constantly call DSB Investments and Alhadeff’s personal cellphone.

When the Bellevue-based company assumed management of The Gladstone in October 2020, the building was in “very, very bad shape,” Alhadeff said. 

“A lot of those units, when we took them over, were vacant, and we had to go through and do everything to them,” he said.

DSB owns and manages at least 20 properties in the Seattle metro area, employing eight maintenance workers. While the company says on its website that it “owns the properties we manage,” Alhadeff said that’s not the case with The Gladstone. Property records indicate it’s owned by Gladstone Holdings LLC, and Alhadeff declined to say who the members of that corporation are.

“Just a box”

The Gladstone was everything Jager needed it to be when she first moved in. Her paycheck from McDonald’s covered the $725 monthly rent, and her then-2-year-old didn’t require much space of his own. Today, the boy’s lofted bed occupies a corner of the living room, while a couch and a TV perched atop a bookshelf full of old VCR tapes and DVDs take up most of the remaining space. The bathroom is so small that the door has to be completely shut in order to access the bathtub and shower.

The persistent maintenance problems make Jager’s cramped apartment even less pleasant, she said. The drains in her bathtub and bathroom sink clog every three to four months, bubbling up with turbid water and hair, she said. Residents were instructed in their leases to not use unclogging chemicals like Drano. Recently, she bought a declogging tool so she doesn’t have to wait for the maintenance team, Jager said.

Dark streaks mar the white ceiling paint, and white fuzz populates the backs of her dressers. Jager said her apartment gets poor ventilation, especially in the winter when she can’t open the windows. She runs box fans constantly, year-round. She said she’s had to discard clothing and luggage because of mold damage in her closet.

Alhadeff told The Times in an email that “since taking over management [of The Gladstone] about eighteen months ago, DSB’s maintenance team has quickly addressed and abated any mold issues that have been reported.”

Jager’s son spends as little time in the apartment as possible, instead going over to friends’ houses or down to the park. He never invites his friends over.

“It’s horrible,” he said of the apartment. “It’s literally just a box.”

The $983 in monthly rent is manageable, yet still too much for a building that “looks like a motel” rather than a home, Jager said. The proposed $367 rent hike would mean that even though she works more than 40 hours a week as an assistant store manager at Fred Meyer, she’d barely have any money left to save for emergencies, let alone send her son to his beloved sports camps and Little League games.

The Puget Sound Tenants Union’s original goal was to get yearlong leases for all tenants at their current rates, said Jennifer Cheng, an organizer with the Seattle-based tenant advocacy organization. She asserted that the city’s “Carl Haglund” law should protect tenants from rent increases until the landlord addresses violations of Seattle’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance. For example, management should address the poor ventilation that would allow mold to grow, she argued. City inspectors will have to examine the units to determine if there are code violations.Tenants in multiple apartments submitted complaints to the city in early July, although no citations have been issued. City inspectors visited The Gladstone twice in August, but only one resident answered the door and permitted an inspection, a city spokesperson said. They’ll try contacting the residents one more time before closing the complaints, and they’ll still inspect the units of residents who call the number on the business cards they left in tenants’ doors.

Inspectors will visit Jager’s unit Monday.

Alhadeff said he didn’t personally decide the amounts of the January rent increases, and he only became aware that residents were organizing in late June. Property managers determine rent rates using data from comparable units in the neighborhood, he said. 

“We work with all our residents,” Alhadeff said, adding that tenants could choose to move into one of the refurbished units, albeit at the higher rate. He said DSB’s property managers try to help tenants find rental assistance, like Seattle’s new displacement assistance program.

Annual rent increases for market-rate rentals usually keep pace with inflation at about 3%, said Flynn of the Rental Housing Association. But for buildings like The Gladstone that kept rates steady for years because of lack of upkeep, eventually new property management takes over, performs overdue maintenance and hikes rates closer to market level to try to salvage the building. The resulting rent increases can feel shocking.

“It’s a super difficult problem for both the ownership group and the tenants,” Flynn said. “Eventually, someone’s got to pay that piper.”

Some residents have been able to work with the property manager for lower rent increases.

When Bonnie Dawson received her notice in January, she didn’t know how she would afford the extra cost. Having only lived at The Gladstone for a year, her combined rent and utilities totaled $1,280 already. The new price she’d have to pay, which was closer to $1,400, would be too much for her fixed Social Security income.

“I just wanted to cry,” Dawson said. “I’m barely making it — I’m just a senior citizen.”

Dawson is currently negotiating with the property manager to get her rent closer to $1,310 — any higher and she wouldn’t be able to afford her medications, including two inhalers that cost $45 apiece. She’s still hoping to move into senior housing next year when she turns 70.

To stay, or to go?

Renters across the region face similar rent increases to those that the Gladstone residents have experienced. Tenants who don’t push back against rent increases have two options — move out, or stay put.

John Tozzi, 57, who works at Seattle Children’s hospital as a program coordinator, couldn’t move to avoid the rent increase at his Capitol Hill apartment near 23rd Avenue and Madison Street. 

He and his husband, Chuck Rowland, feared they might end up homeless when they received a “pay or vacate” notice in mid-May. They’ve lived in their building for almost eight years but fell four months behind on rent in 2021 because of unemployment during the pandemic. The lease on their two-bedroom apartment was set to expire in July, and Tozzi said the property management company wouldn’t renew it until they paid.

Even if they caught up on payments and renewed, their monthly rent would increase by $200 to $2,700.

After receiving the notice, the couple scrambled to try finding a more affordable place. They’d burned through their savings while they were unemployed, and since Rowland was unable to work at the time because of health issues, Tozzi’s income couldn’t cover all their costs.

“Here I am making $70,000 a year, and we’re hitting the food banks because we can’t support ourselves on that amount of money,” Tozzi said. “It’s insane.”

Eventually, they decided the only feasible choice was to take a loan from Tozzi’s sister, pay off the overdue rent and stay put. Now that Rowland is healthy again and recently started a new job, they hope to pay off their debts in two years and rebuild their credit.

“I just never dreamed it would get this bad,” Tozzi said.

Dreams of a bigger, better home

Jager knew she and her son would leave The Gladstone eventually. She figured when he was 12, they’d find a place where he could have his own room. It wasn’t until the rent hike that she started earnestly looking at other places.

They won’t move until after he finishes fifth grade next year. She’s eyeing a two-bedroom apartment in Shoreline’s Richmond Beach neighborhood, where one of her colleagues lives. 

Jager isn’t sure what will happen with her Gladstone rent. Ideally, she’d negotiate a smaller increase to just $1,050 a month for her current place. But if DSB won’t work with her, she’s mentally prepared herself to swallow the price and move to a renovated unit.

“If I’m going to be paying $1,350, I want a $1,350 apartment,” she said. “Don’t make it so I’m stuck wondering where the heck my money is going when it’s still a complete rundown dump — because that’s what it is.”

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