Photo depicting the exterior of the Madkin Apartments building on East Madison Street.

Tenants in Limbo After Sale of ‘Naturally Affordable’ Apartment Building

by Guy Oron

(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

Tenants of a Capitol Hill apartment complex are fighting to stay in place after their building — an example of “naturally affordable” housing in Seattle — was sold to a private company.

Meagan Angus has made her home in the historic Madkin Apartments building, which sits at the intersection of the Central District, Capitol Hill, and Madison Park neighborhoods. Angus — the president of the building’s recently formed tenants association — and her neighbors are organizing to prevent the displacement of the building’s residents.

Built in 1905, the Madkin is a four-story apartment building with a basement and 23 units. It became ingrained in the history of Seattle’s Black community; before the recent sale, it was owned by three successive generations of Black Seattleites.

William Hawkins, a World War I veteran, purchased the building in 1947. It was later owned by the couple Robert and Esther Madkin, for whom the building was renamed. The Madkins were prominent members of Seattle’s Black community, participating in the NAACP and civil rights lawsuits. In 1956, Esther hosted Rosa Parks at the apartment building for a press conference during a fundraising trip for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The building is also home to many artists and creatives, including Grammy Award-winning guitarist BluMeadows.

Map depicting Seattle neighborhoods with a blue marker to indicate where the Madkin on East Madison Street is.
Map by Henry Behrens/Datawrapper.

Tenants in the building say that the previous owner, Fally Tyson, intentionally kept rent at a below-market rate to keep the units affordable. That allowed residents to stay in the building for decades and build a genuine sense of community with their neighbors — a rarity in Seattle’s housing market.

Tyson passed away in 2020 at the age of 79.

Madkin tenants — who won the proverbial lottery by having a landlord like Tyson, who intentionally lost out on extra profits by renting below market rate — may now have to scramble to find new accommodations if the new owner decides to raise their rent.

Anthony Williams, a retiree living on social security benefits, said that he has lived in the Madkin for more than 40 years. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he taught kung fu.

Joey Barlowe has lived at Madkin Apartments for 15 years. “The experience has been great,” he said. “This is the longest I’ve ever lived in one home. It really feels like a home. It’s the only home that I’ve known in Seattle. My neighbors are great. The community is great. The previous landlord was just a gem. He always kept, as we’ve been talking about, the rents below market. Very reasonable.”

Apartments like the Madkin have been championed by supporters of the landlord industry as “naturally occurring affordable housing.” In March, Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson said that supporting this type of housing is essential to maintaining affordability. Nelson has previously stated that Seattle’s robust pro-renter regulations can impose onerous requirements on “mom-and-pop” landlords, driving them to sell instead of rent their units at affordable rates.

The experience of renters at the Madkin suggests that this type of market-provided affordable housing is tenuous and scarce. “You shouldn’t have to be a rich person to make a home in Seattle,” Angus said.

Photo depicting Anthony Williams, Liz Tyson, and another individual standing in front of the Madkin apartment building.
Tenants at the Madkin such as Anthony Williams (center) and Liz Tyson (right) consider the building an example of “naturally affordable” housing in the city.

According to Violet Lavatai, the executive director of the Tenants Union, the only way to guarantee stability for renters like the Madkin apartment tenants is for the government to pass rent control. Lavatai and her organization have been helping the tenants with their organizing.

“You have a group of people who dictate how much people should be paying in rent, and that’s a form of abuse and power,” she said. “We know it. That’s why advocates all over our nation are fighting for rent control.”

Washington State law bans cities like Seattle from imposing caps on rent or rent increases.

Soon after the Madkin tenants found out about the potential sale of their building in early spring 2022, resident Liz Tyson handed out leaflets to other neighbors in the building. They started meeting regularly and hoped to get a nonprofit housing provider to buy the building. However, by the time they were able to make connections with local nonprofits, the building was sold.

Two months ago, the building was listed for $6.25 million. Tyson’s sisters, who now own the property, found a buyer recently, but, as of press date, the contract details remain unknown to the building’s tenants or public at large. CBRE, the property company that represented the sisters, refused to disclose the identity of the buyer.

“A big part of our fight here is to maintain an environment where just normal-ass folks can continue to make a life for themselves in the middle of the city,” Angus said.

Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.

📸 Featured Image: The Madkin Apartments building was built in 1905 and, before the recent sale to a private company, was owned by three generations of Black Seattleites. (Photo: Guy Oron)

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