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State, cities scramble to offer relief to tenants ousted by renovations, rising rents

Olympia renters forced to move: ‘It’s hitting us all pretty hard’

Families scramble for places to live before a 60-day notice to vacate their eastside Olympia duplexes takes effect.
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Families scramble for places to live before a 60-day notice to vacate their eastside Olympia duplexes takes effect.

With weeks to go before school starts, Ty Brown is preparing to move three kids ages 3 to 13 to Longview to live in a motor home on family property.

This wasn’t the plan.

Brown has lived in the same one-bedroom duplex on 10th Avenue Southeast in Olympia nearly four years. It was cramped but affordable at $800 a month.

This spring, the building sold, and tenants were given until the end of August to move out. Brown applied for other apartments but didn’t meet their income requirements; besides, paying rent plus a deposit plus fees all at once would have been impossible.

“Who has a spare $5,000 in the bank, with kids especially?” Brown said.

In Olympia, where the majority of households are renting, officials are looking at ways to help people like Brown, including renter protections, relocation assistance and incentives to get more housing built.

According to the Thurston Regional Planning Council, in the past decade average rents have gone up 31 percent while the median household income has gone up just 3 percent. Today a person needs to make $22.15 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the area, according to a June report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

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At a meeting this week with Olympia officials, housing advocates said too many families are paying too much. They called for incentives for builders to create smaller units with lower rents, for converting unused commercial spaces to housing, and for lowering building costs by waiving requirements or charging graduated impact fees, which developers pay to offset infrastructure costs related to growth.

“I had somebody say to me the other day that, ‘You know, we’re making all this progress on homelessness but it doesn’t look like it,’” said Carly Colgan, executive director at South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity. “It’s because we’re not addressing the families that right now can’t pay their rent as well, and they’re going to end up on the street next month when we get somebody else off the street.”

In May, the same month Brown’s duplex sold, more than a third of tenants at the Angelus apartments on Fourth Avenue West were given notices to vacate by the building’s new owner, who cited behavioral problems and unpaid rent. City officials, fearing everyone could be forced out, authorized payments of $2,000 per unit, along with case management to help displaced tenants find places to live and sign up for other assistance programs.

It was the first time the city paid people displaced by private redevelopment. In this case, the money came from a loan repayment to the city from the building’s previous owner.

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Now officials are considering creating an assistance fund to help other low-income renters forced to move due to redevelopment. Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma offer similar programs, with landlords paying into the pot. Lacey requires assistance be paid out when rentals are converted to condos, though that has not been triggered in the two years since it passed.

“Just like we have development impact fees to help pay for various infrastructure, it may be worthwhile for us to think of essentially an impact fee applied to redevelopment in order to mitigate some of the negative impacts,” said council member Renata Rollins.

‘This is a crisis’

Local efforts to help renters are buoyed by changes at the state level. Lawmakers this session extended the time landlords have to give tenants notice ahead of rent increases or renovations and gave tenants more time to catch up on late rent before they are evicted.

Legislators approved a sales tax credit for cities to pay for affordable housing or rental assistance that is expected to net about $330,000 for Olympia next year, and they created grants for cities to study housing needs for all income levels and come up with ways to add housing for each.

“It’s been tough to get an apartment in Olympia for quite awhile, but today it’s tough for people clear up to the median income, the average folks, to find a place to live,” said Clark Gilman, who leads the City Council’s land use and environment committee.

Gilman said officials want to do a housing plan before considering changes to impact fees or tax exemptions for multifamily housing, which critics have called handouts to for-profit developers.

Meanwhile, officials in Tumwater are floating tenant protections that could be adopted throughout the region. The list includes extending the time landlords have to give notice to vacate, requiring landlords to accept deposits and move-in fees in installments, invalidating leases that require tenants to waive their rights, and providing conflict resolution services for tenants and landlords at odds.

While still in early talks, the idea is to adopt policies on a regional scale — in Tumwater, Olympia, Lacey and Thurston County — since landlords and tenants often cross boundaries, said Tumwater City Council member Michael Althauser.

He notes agreeing on policies that are enforceable for all the jurisdictions will take time, as will outreach to landlords, property managers, housing advocates and others.

But early feedback on the proposal underlies the need, he said.

“Some of the messages we’ve got back are this is a crisis,” Althauser said. “Some of the people said — and I’m glad they said it — you need to work faster.”

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