Why This Rickety Building Lost The Fight Against Rising Rents
On the top floor of the Summit Inn, a run-down building on Capitol Hill where artists live, Philomel Swango, 64, shows off bolts of colorful cloth and talks about the costumes she sews for a living.
"I just did a pirate wedding," she says. "I made the bride’s dress. I made it look like she mugged Marie Antoinette."
Swango raised four kids and worked with mentally ill children and gangs. She’s done with that now. And her rent, around $650, allows her to live an artist’s bohemian life.
But the building sold last year, and now rents may increase. Tenants have protested, but they’re not hopeful that they’ll manage to stay.
Frustrated renters often blame developers. But the reality is more complicated – at least it is at the four-story Summit Inn, which hums 24/7 with creative energy.
With housing prices increasing so rapidly in Seattle, property owners are cashing in by selling their apartment buildings to developers who expect to charge higher rents. So while developers can be to blame, the fate of these buildings is set the moment they're sold at market value.
Sometimes, Swango wakes up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. to the sound of a band practicing. "We do have bands performing all hours of the day and night," she says. "That’s kind of fun. It took a while to get used to death metal. But now, I can do it. Now, it doesn’t bother me."
David Almonte practices with his band Rat Path downstairs. Almonte says he used to be homeless, but the cheap rents at the Summit Inn gave him a place to land – and a sense of purpose.
"I’ve dedicated my life to chasing what I want to do, to be who I want to be and to express myself," Almonte says. "This is my only time here. And when I’m dead, I’m going to be dead. So I’m going to have fun, I’m going to create art, I’m going to create music."
The Summit Inn started out as housing for people with mental health problems. It morphed into an artists’ hub over time because of its former owner, Peter Sikov, whose motto was to "create places where things can happen."
Sikov is devoted to the arts. He owns the Columbia City Theater and some of the demolished remains of Jimmy Hendrix’s childhood home.
"I have enjoyed the opportunity to create environments in which certain things could flourish," he says as we stand on the balcony of the stage.
Rents at the Summit Inn stayed low because Sikov didn’t maintain the building much. Over time, it slid into disrepair.
Inspectors from the Seattle Department of Planning and Development dinged the building for exposed wiring, broken windows and missing fire alarms.
Sikov’s relationship with the city became rocky. City officials asked him to fix up the building, and over time, he grew wary of inspectors.
Last year, the Seattle City Council passed a law requiring that all rentals meet a standard. Apartments would be subject to random inspections.
Sikov balked. And at the end of 2014, he sold the Summit Inn for twice what he paid in 1998.
"I did it as long as I could, I had a good time, people had a good time, and the experience ran its course," says Sikov. "And now, things will change. They always do."
That's when Brad Padden entered the picture.
"We bought the building at today’s market rates," Padden says. "There was no discount to us so that we could continue with that kind of patronage of the residents there."
Padden and his business partner bought the building for almost $3 million.
"The brokers told us that this is a really messed up building,” Padden says. “Those are the words they used, 'messed up.’ And for guys like us, who come into situations where we buy these buildings that are in disrepair from owners that had deferred maintenance, it’s kind of expected.”
But Padden didn’t expect Summit Inn tenants to protest.
They drew the attention of City Council member Kshama Sawant, who is pushing for rent control. The tenants threw a huge block party to show support from the community. The party filled the hallways of the rickety wooden building.
Padden realized that he was doing more than displacing residents. He was breaking up a strong community.
"When you buy a $3 million building, and you put $2 million into it, you have to recoup those costs,” he says. “I don’t know how to resolve that problem. But it does make me want to search deeper for a solution."
Padden is looking into grants that could help subsidize the higher $850 rents he plans to charge. That would allow artists live there again after renovations are done.
All residents will have to leave this fall when the remodel begins. But they aren’t hopeful.
"We roll the dice in this game of life, especially being an artist and a musician,” Almonte says. “So if that happens, I’d accept it and move on humbly."
There are no easy solutions, which is why policy makers are looking for answers to the affordable housing crisis. They’re exploring options from rent control to building more affordable housing.
Sawant and City Council member Nick Licata will present their case for rent control at a town hall meeting about affordable rents at 6 p.m. Thursday at Seattle City Hall. They want people to share their stories of skyrocketing rents.