by Alex Garland
Tenants from the Columbia Gardens and Dakota apartment buildings, located in the Mt. Baker neighborhood, gathered in the small courtyard between the buildings on Oct. 22. Housing rights advocates and community activists joined for a rally in protest of alleged tenant abuse, ignored maintenance issues, lack of internet access, and lack of communication from management around changes made to community spaces. The issues tenants are experiencing caught the attention of the Tenants Union of Washington State (TUWS) and Be:Seattle, organizations that help protect and organize renters, and both helped coordinate the rally.
Both Columbia Gardens — apartments for senior housing — and the Dakota apartments are owned by SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), a nonprofit that owns more than 1,000 apartments in South Seattle with the aim of maintaining affordable housing in the area. These two properties are managed by Coast Property Management.
During the rally, employees from Coast Property Management sequestered themselves in an adjacent building and turned out the lights as the tenants approached the windows of the room where several were eating. As chants of “People Over Profit” echoed in the narrow space, tenants from Columbia Gardens stood on balconies and patios or joined their neighbors as they rallied.
Gordon Curvey, a resident, has seen a revolving door of management and maintenance staff during his time there. The thing that worries him the most, though, is the most recent rent hike. “This $100 rent increase is the largest rent increase since I’ve been here. $100 is a lot. We’re letting them know we mean business.”
As the crowd rallied around, Curvey read out the tenants’ demands, which included the following: no more unsustainable rent increases, addressing discrimination, more maintanenace staff, better accessibility to community rooms and bathrooms, more affordable internet, better communication from managment about staffing changes, and an official process to respond to tenant complaints.
Melania McCombs has lived in Columbia Gardens for seven years and finds the lack of maintenance and security staff worrisome. “They just don’t seem to hire enough people or pay them a wage to make them stay,” she said. “Some things are put off for years. They’ve closed bathrooms because they’re being abused by people doing drugs … They’ve closed a number of community rooms because of what they say is abusive use by non-residents — so get more security.”
As tenants are facing rising rents, they feel their issues are falling through the cracks. “We’ve gone through five managers in seven years,” said McCombs. When asked why she joined her neighbors, McCombs mentioned the rent increase. “This is a big jump. That’s why we’re making all this noise.”
Other residents of the buildings expressed similar concerns with building management. Patricia Bruce lives in one of the townhouses overseen by SEED. She said that residents are tired of changes that have happened in the last few years, such as closing the community room with the television and computer after 5:00 p.m. when it used to be open 24 hours a day. A community bathroom and movie theater are now closed to residents as well, she says. “There’s a lot of little things that build up over a period of time that brings us here today.”
Livan McDonald, a resident of the Dakota apartments, says he has seen a huge spectrum of issues. “We don’t feel safe … We need change. We need new management,” he said. “All the tenants have issues — leaking [plumbing], some don’t have a fridge, stoves, lights. Some of them feel there is discrimination. If we talk to the manager, they say they’ll fix it and won’t show up.”
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant joined the rally with messaging about rent control and protections for renters. “My office and many community members around the city [have] been working to establish a city that genuinely protects our renter community which is now the majority of our city,” she told the gathered crowd. “It is outrageous and egregious to hear of the deplorable conditions in which these buildings have been left … on top of that, they have the nerve to send you rent increases. The reason they have this nerve is because they don’t think you have any power … This is step number one.”
The Emerald reached out to SEED for a comment on the protest and received the following in reply:
“SEED is committed to operating quality affordable housing communities in Southeast Seattle. Due to COVID we have been prioritizing essential repairs at our properties. We ask residents to submit any maintenance requests in writing and they will be responded to as soon as possible. On Monday, a new portfolio manager starts at the Dakota and Columbia Apartments. We’ll be communicating more with our residents soon.”
When asked about maintenance issues reported by many of the residents, SEED Executive Director Michael Seiwerath replied: “SEED and the building manager Coast work hard to keep stable staffing levels at the properties. Like many other sectors, property management has been facing labor shortages. Coast has a full time recruiter, has recently rolled out a new, more in-depth training program, and is actively working towards greater staff retention. Regarding maintenance issues, supply chain disruptions and COVID have slowed some repairs. However, we are not aware of maintenance issues that have been ongoing for multiple years. Earlier this fall, Coast transitioned to a new online property management software, and seeks to soon roll out an online maintenance request portal, making it easier for residents to submit maintenance requests.”
Coast Property Management has not yet responded to multiple requests for comment.
Lydia Rubenstein, with the TUWS, expects more from SEED, which claims to have a mission of keeping housing affordable in South Seattle. “[They have] a good mission,” she said. “I think tenants here today are just reminding them of what that means.”
On Oct. 20, Councilmember Sawant delivered a letter to Coast Property Management demanding that they address tenant concerns.
Alex Garland is a photojournalist and reporter. With a degree in emergency administration and disaster planning from the University of North Texas, Alex spent his early professional career as a GIS analyst for FEMA. Follow him on Twitter.
📸 Featured Image: Tenants from the Columbia Gardens and Dakota apartments gather to protest Coast Property Management. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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