What Happens When Development Costs Trickle Down?

Residents of the South End are still grappling with the fallout of new development — and no one is taking responsibility

by Tammy Morales

As he flipped the ignition on his lawnmower, Ty Kocher knew that he would likely be disturbing Gerald. Gerald had been living in a tent tucked under a tree on Ty’s property for a few weeks, with permission from both Ty and Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC), the neighborhood organization that was renting Ty’s house for office space.

“I looked at Gerald and apologized,” Ty explained. “He’s sitting in that hot tent and now I’m bringing this noise. Then he looked at me and said he felt bad that I had to mow the lawn on this hot day!”

As tenants, the RBAC staff, myself included, have been happy to accommodate Gerald. We’ve been even more appreciative of having such a compassionate landlord. We know this isn’t always the case. But after a recent run-in with the City and Sound Transit over a massive, necessary sewer repair, it’s become even more clear that landlords like Ty are more valuable than we could have imagined.

Who’s Responsible for Repairing Property Damage?

RBAC House, as we affectionately call it, sits on a strategic corner for our neighborhood. Across the street from the light rail station, situated between several commercial properties that could catalyze our vision for a vibrant economic hub, our current office space puts us smack in the middle of the last best chance to preserve affordability in the city.

Ty’s willingness to lease to us lets us work toward our shared goals without worrying about where we’re going to go to work.

So when we started having plumbing problems, we knew our landlord would do his best to resolve the issue quickly.

Sadly for Ty, the problems were just beginning.  

It turns out that the property he purchased in 2015 had sewer damage that had not been disclosed — and likely was unknown to the previous owner.  After hiring two companies to snake and then hydrojet the line, Ty was told that the sewer line was never reattached to the main following the 2006 light rail construction.

The plumbing professionals sent a camera down the line. They tore up the sidewalk and one lane of MLK to make the repair. For weeks, the road was torn up and our staff couldn’t use the downstairs restroom.

“They told me I had to pay for this work upfront,” Ty said, “then submit reimbursement forms to the right entity.”

All things told, he spent over $50,000 to repair the sewer line — something that he, as a property owner, had no control over.

Officials Deny Claims

The City denied responsibility for damage or repair. So Ty went to Sound Transit since the attachment of the line should have happened after the light rail construction was complete.

Sound Transit also did not admit fault, though it’s unclear if they even investigated the matter.

Instead, they sent a letter saying the light rail project was completed in 2009 and that any damage claims must be made within six years, which would have been by 2015. The letter went on to say that “even if one assumes that your cause of action did, in fact, accrue within six years of substantial completion, the three-year statute of limitations on your claim has expired.” 

Despite their denial of responsibility, Sound Transit did offer a settlement — though the amount is less than half the cost.

The $25,000 they offered didn’t begin to cover the days Ty spent working to identify the problem or hiring a camera crew to see what was happening underneath the street in front of his property. It didn’t pay for the time he spent speaking to 11 different firms over a period of weeks to get bids. It didn’t pay for the time away from his day job to collect photos, set up financing, meet with contractors. It didn’t pay for the lost time and earnings of commuters, pedestrians, and businesses who were tangled in traffic while the road was ripped to shreds.

Where is the Public Accountability?

Ty is careful to say that he is grateful to have access to loans and lines of credit.

“I was able to borrow to pay these bills, but I know many owners along the light rail may not be in that position,” he said.

“What really bothers me is the general unfairness of the system. It’s crazy that any homeowner along MLK could be wiped out. Any owner of a structure built before the 1960s along MLK is at risk of losing everything,” he stated. Ty says he feels lucky that he and his partner were able to access a loan so quickly — but acknowledges the cost.

“We did not go bankrupt, but we did lose an important opportunity: We had been hoping to adopt again.”

Of course, those who were here during the light rail construction remember the chaos of the construction. And those who are invested in transit and transportation in general will remember advisories that damage to the sewage line might have been avoided if the light rail had been built in a tunnel instead of at grade.

It seems a stretch to say that Ty is responsible for causing the damage to a sewer line under an adjacent parcel to the property he didn’t own at the time. It seems inconceivable to declare that he’s responsible for fixing it. He didn’t detach the pipe. He doesn’t own MLK. He’s owned the property for just 3 years and has done no underground work on or near his property.

But if he couldn’t pay and the City wouldn’t pay and Sound Transit wouldn’t pay, who does?

Bringing transportation to a neighborhood like Rainier Beach is a lifeline; it connects communities and helps residents live productive, enjoyable lives. But planners and those writing the budgets must account for the actual costs of construction and development – and understand that sometimes, these costs take years to come to light. If we’re asking taxpayers to save for an unforeseen, unforeseeable disaster, the least we can expect is that our government organizations do the same.  

Tammy Morales is a community organizer in South Seattle and a Seattle Human Rights Commissioner.

One thought on “What Happens When Development Costs Trickle Down?”

  1. It’s unfortunate if the light rail project did some undetected damage to the sewer connection for this home. The moral of the story as I’m reading it, though, is “Order a sewer scope before you buy a house!”. It’s $250 that could save you tens of thousands of dollars and headache…