by Mark Van Streefkerk
Last Wednesday, April 29, tenants at Bellwether Housing Kingway Apartments & Juneau Townhomes submitted a petition signed by 100 residents across the two adjacent affordable housing complexes, making several demands of their landlord, Bellwether Housing. The demands included rent reduction or forgiveness and a fair and transparent payment plan in light of COVID-19 shutdowns. Bellwether responded on Friday, May 1, stating they were unable to decrease or forgive rent and they reiterated previous policies outlined in a letter issued to residents on March 19. The March 19 letter, from Director of Property Management Michelle Hawley and Resident Services Manager Elliot Swanson, said that back rent accrued during the government shutdowns could be paid on a payment plan that wouldn’t go into effect until normal operations resumed and that residents would have at least nine months to pay any back rent that might have accrued due to coronavirus-related unemployment.
The Kingway and Juneau tenants’ petition specifically requested a payment plan that wouldn’t start until August, with payments for back rent not to exceed five percent of the base rent. Furthermore, the petitioners demanded that they be able to communicate about payment plans through staff other than their shared site manager Keenan Chance, who they accuse of a number of abuses against residents. In their response, Bellwether did not address the issues with the site manager.
Resident Seyvon West felt the response was dismissive. “That kind of agitated me,” he said. “I just think it’s really important to realize some of these people are just really living in fear due to the situation of ‘Where am I going to go?’ That’s the point we’re trying to get across to Bellwether: Can you see us as humans first? See us as humans please.”
After April 1, when the rent came due, “A lot of residents submitted a dollar with [their name attached to] a letter asking for some kind of help,” said housing advocate KJ Moon, formerly with the Transit Riders Union, “whether it be a rent reduction or a temporary deferment of rent.” Essentially, said Moon, Bellwether replied to them saying, “‘No we can’t do that. But we’ll give you a payment plan that is over nine months. It will start when the crisis is over. We can go from there. You can talk to your resident manager, to figure this out,’” Moon explained. The catch, added Moon, is that “before the whole coronavirus thing, I think a lot of tenants were trying to get a petition going together to get the property manager of the site fired.” So resident unrest with Chance, the site manager, was already on high before the shutdowns came.
After the April letter asking for rent reduction or deferment was submitted, Chance, named in the recent petition as having “a history of abusive, racist, and retaliatory behavior towards residents,” started pressuring certain tenants to sign a five-month payment plan that would start May 1. According to West, Chance was giving different payment plans to different tenants, and intimidating residents with legal action if rent wasn’t paid, disregarding the governor’s eviction moratorium. Add to that the fact that the letter detailing the payment plan was only in English, with many of the residents speaking primarily Amharic, Somali, Tigrinya, or Vietnamese, many felt pressured to sign the five-month plan. Hence the residents’ demand for transparency.
Although Bellwether’s formal reply to the petition didn’t address the issues with the site manager, in a phone interview with the Emerald, CEO Susan Boyd denounced any payment plans offered by the site manager that did not reflect the official policy of Bellwether. “There’s no legal action we’re going to take because people aren’t paying rent. We’re waiving all late fees,” Boyd affirmed.
In reference to tenants feeling intimidated by Chance, Boyd said, “We are looking into those concerns, and we’re taking them very seriously because if people feel that way, it completely undermines the work we’re trying to do.”
Boyd says the Bellwether resident services team has been stretched thin due to COVID-19, working to keep disabled and elderly tenants connected with the help they need, making sure families have educational resources for their children, and helping residents access unemployment. They have enlisted the help of Muslim Housing Services, which also provides financial assistance, for outreach assistance. The primary lenders to Kingway Apartments are U.S. Bank and the City of Seattle. Boyd confirms what was put forth in Bellwether’s response to the petition — they are unable to reduce or forgive rent because of obligations to these lenders. As far as seeking out government funding, Boyd said, “When we get to state and local government, it’s really hard to ask for a bunch of money. They’re dependent on sales tax revenue, and hotel tax revenue, and all these sources of revenue that have completely disappeared. A lot of the advocacy energy has gone up to the federal level, which has disinvested in housing for decades.”
Instead, resident services are trying to connect tenants to other organizations that can offer financial assistance. A resident of Bellwether’s Arbora Court Apartments, who chose to remain anonymous, had to seek outside help from at least three organizations, United Way, Catholic Community Services, and Interim CDA to pay their $1,200 rent for a one bedroom. “They were actually told I pay 900 dollars in rent. When my apartment complex was getting back to these [organizations], they were giving them wrong estimates. Given the issues I’ve had, I don’t think it’s worth 1,200. I think it’s pretty ironic that Bellwether is a government-subsidized company that won’t waive or lower their rent for us here, so we’re having to rely on other government partners to help us pay for rent,” they said.
West has already seen one family at Kingway leave, which could lead to a “chain reaction” of others leaving as well. The next step for West and some other tenants is to keep making their demands, and withhold rent until at least some of them are met.
“I lived in the CD,” West said. “[This is] how the CD got gentrified, almost exactly to a T of how the CD got gentrified. They upped the rents, they made all these promises. They said, ‘Oh well we’ll do this,’ and then they completely gentrified the whole Central District. I would hate to see another area of Seattle, the upper part of South Seattle get gentrified due to coronavirus.”
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South-Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image: Alex Garland.