Record rent hikes push people out of Seattle

by: Lee Stoll Updated:

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SEATTLE —

Renters in Seattle are reeling after years of price hikes.  The city is now No. 1 in the country for rent increases--which is driving people out of the city for good.  A state law is blocking city leaders from doing anything about it.
 
Signs on the Adams apartment building in Belltown and postings online show newly renovated units available for rent.  A one bedroom space was Tupelo Bahir’s home for 10 years.
 
We asked her, "Did you think you would live there for the rest of your life?"

"I had hoped so."  she said.
 
PTSD, anxiety and depression from domestic abuse qualifies the Army veteran for low income housing, also known as Section-8.  Her rent stayed steady at $735 a month, until last spring.  The building was sold.  The new owner notified renters that rates were going up.
 
"Many people were saying 'just put your stuff in storage and stay in a shelter' and I had been in shelters before and that's not a very nice place to be," said Bahir.
 
Bahir’s rent nearly doubled to $1,450 a month.  She lives on just $900 a month in state assistance.
 
"I feel very angry and very frustrated." She said.  But she doesn’t feel alone.
 
"There's such a huge need right now because rents are just going through the roof," said Johnathan Grant, executive director of the Tenant’s Union of Washington.  Calls are up from people who say their rent is skyrocketing $300-$800 a month.  Fifty-seven percent of people living in King County are renters.  Most are spending more than half of their income on their home.
 
"That is a huge amount of people who are rent burdened and are putting them right on the cusp of being evicted or homeless because that's just one paycheck away from being homeless or displaced," said Grant.
 
Many original Seattle builders were given public money for construction.  In exchange, they would sign a deal to keep some units reserved for Section-8 housing.  The 40-year contract on the Adams Apartment expired when it was sold so the new owner didn’t owe Bahir anything.
 
In Seattle, rents rose 8-10 percent between 2012-2013 but are expected to level off this year.  By law, landlords must give renters 60 days notice if the increase is 10 percent or more. That’s the only say the city gets.
 
We asked Cyndi Wilder with the Department of Planning and Development, "If developers jack up rents just to push people out is there anything you can do?"
"Our hands are tied," she said.
 
According to Washington State law, cities have no right to regulate or control rent.  More than 30 other states have similar laws prohibiting rent control.
 
"At this point, there's nothing in our code that would allow us to do anything else," said Wilder.
 
Rahim says she had no choice but to move into another subsidized apartment for an extra $87 a month.
 
"I have to go to food banks."  She said.
 
With builders taking more low income units off the market, Grant worries where other clients will go.
 
"It's just catapulting people out of homes and we need to find a way to stabilize rents for folks," said Grant.

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