Author Archives: Lee

Tenants stall rent hikes, win repairs, but many priced out

By the summer of 2016, residents of Beacon Hill’s Thai Columbian Apartments had long been used to living with broken refrigerators, broken heaters, water leaks, rats, and cockroaches. They put up with it, because the rent was low. Then they found two notices taped to their doors: a new management company called Tecton was taking over, and the rent would be going way, way up – by 25%.

Beyond posting rent increase notices, Tecton seemed unwilling to lift a finger. Broken appliances still weren’t fixed or replaced. Water still leaked, causing ceilings and floors to collapse. Trash still piled up outside due to insufficient garbage collection.

Tenants’ initial shock soon turned to fury. If they were going to start paying serious rent for these apartments, continuing to live in slum conditions was just too much. They had to do something.

kitchen hall cave-in rat

Getting organized

One of the tenants who knew of SeaSol from a previous campaign distributed our contact info throughout the complex, and we quickly received calls from several Thai Columbian tenants. We met with them and began assessing if and how we could help them fight back. With rents skyrocketing all over Seattle, we recognized that we probably wouldn’t have enough power to stop the rent from going up, although it might be delayed through legal tactics. The tenants’ greatest anger was over the continued horrible living conditions, and on that issue we felt prepared for a fight. SeaSol voted to organize a direct action campaign aimed at forcing the slumlords to make repairs. Meanwhile, we could help tenants navigate the complex legal structures that are supposed to protect Seattle tenants from landlord malfeasance, and see if the rent increases could at least be delayed.

We began our campaign by organizing building-wide meetings with the tenants we were already in touch with. SeaSol members joined these tenants in knocking on every door in the two buildings to ask about the issues in people’s units and invite them to meetings. 15 to 20 different units were represented in these early meetings, during which we developed a list of issues throughout the complex which would serve as our list of demands.

It was the longest list of demands SeaSol had ever drawn up, but given the number of horrendous problems the landlord was ignoring, it had to be. In addition to broken toilets and refrigerators, there was one family with no lock on their door, another having water pour in through their living-room ceiling whenever it rained, and a gap in an outside railing over a three-story cliff, where a small child had already fallen and suffered serious injuries.

The fight begins

SeaSol mobilized a strong group of 35 community members and tenants at 10AM on a weekday to go to the Tecton Property Management offices and present the demands. We calmly walked into the offices, where one of the tenants read the demand letter to the CEO of Tecton. This was a particularly empowering moment in the campaign; she stood tall and delivered the demands in the office of the executive. He attempted to cut her off, stating that he “didn’t have time for this,” but she simply continued to read and made him listen to the demand letter in its entirety while the rest of us, packed into his office, looked on. Here’s the video.

Despite the urgency of the repair demands, we gave Tecton five days to begin fixing them before we’d take further action. Tecton chose not to do so. Meanwhile, we used this time to begin helping the tenants follow up about the rent increases with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (DCI), which is tasked with enforcing local housing laws. As one of the tenants had already discovered, Tecton’s rent increase notices were legally invalid, since they didn’t include required tenant-rights information.

While we are and always have been a direct action-oriented organization that intentionally avoids working within the parameters of the legal system as much as possible, in this case the potential value of delaying the rent hike was too great for us to ignore, so we decided to set aside ideological dogma in order to be as helpful as possible to the tenants.

After five days, we immediately began putting up “don’t rent here” warning posters around the buildings. This allowed us to build connections with other tenants and served as an initial shot across the bow, so to speak. From there, we began putting up posters around other Tecton properties in the region to warn prospective renters of how they conduct themselves. It was around this time that we received word from DCI that they would be forcing Tecton to rescind the illegally-posted rent hike. This came as a great relief to many of the tenants, even if it only amounted to two more months in the buildings before they were priced out.

Insult to injury

Tecton had the audacity to begin repairing and renovating units that had been empty since before the fight began, prior to beginning work on their current tenants’ homes which were still in severe disrepair.

We took this antagonism as a signal to escalate our fight, organizing a series of pickets targeting the buildings’ owner, Mark Shuler, at the home which served as the office for his architecture firm in Ballard. Prior to this, we made sure to poster the area (with Shuler’s face prominent on the posters) as well as go door to door to speak with Shuler’s neighbors and explain our intentions to picket on their street. While we were always sure to bring the noise to these pickets, we wanted to be sure to engage with the neighbors to make sure they understood the reason for the disturbance, and who was to blame.

picket

Some get repairs, while many have to move

Faced with these tactics, the landlords finally began acknowledging our demands, and repairs began to happen at a glacial pace. They finally closed the gap in the railing where the child had fallen several months earlier. They replaced the broken laundry machines and some of the units’ broken appliances. They fixed the mailboxes, which had fallen into such disrepair that the postal service had been threatening to stop delivering to them. They hired pest control people to at least try to address the cockroach and rat infestations.

We were able to further delay some of the rent increases in early 2017, after one of the two apartment buildings failed a DCI inspection that we coordinated with the tenants. Despite our efforts on this front however, the majority of the tenants were eventually pushed out of the apartments over the next few months. Tecton worked tirelessly to try and rent out the newly-renovated units at much higher rent levels, but didn’t find much luck with it. This was partly because of the warnings we posted around the buildings and online, but also because the rents they were asking for were just too high. Rather than keep rents at a reasonable level, the landlords in effect chose to collect no rent at all from most of the apartments, and in the end we couldn’t stop them from making that choice.

Finishing it

Even after the rent increase took effect, there remained a core of Thai Columbian tenants who were engaged with SeaSol, and several still-inhabited units had major problems that had not been addressed. One family still didn’t have a working refrigerator. Another still had water coming in through the ceiling during rainstorms. A tenant still had water leaking from the pipes in his bathroom. There still wasn’t sufficient garbage collection, so the area out back was still a rodent-infested trash heap. We were determined to give the landlords no peace until all remaining tenants had gotten their original repair demands met, or else received relocation (either money or a new apartment) that was acceptable to them.

garbage

To highlight the remaining repair demands, every week or two we chose a specific issue to bring to the landlords’ attention continuously, via request forms, emails, text messages, and phone calls. Meanwhile we launched a satirical “ShulerAID” charity campaign, asking people to spare change for this unfortunate landlord who was too poor to maintain decent conditions. We publicized it online and with posters around Mark Shuler’s neighborhood, culminating in a “benefit concert” in front of his home. We also rallied a small group of about 15 people who marched into the onsite office to submit a pile of repair requests on behalf of a tenant who was still dealing with a huge leak in their ceiling. We covered the area around the Thai Columbian with posters encouraging neighbors to complain about the lack of adequate garbage collection. We combined these tactics with a series of weekly ShulerAID postcards that we sent to the homes of Mark Shuler’s Facebook friends.

All this appeared to do the trick. The broken refrigerator was replaced. The leaking bathroom pipe was fixed. The tenants with the leaking ceiling were given a different apartment. The landlord added an extra weekly garbage pickup. With all of our demands now having been met, we voted to end our fight.

Takeaways

This was a difficult fight for both Seattle Solidarity Network and the tenants. Our organization joined the fight only a month or so prior to the initial rent increase going into effect. This left us without a lot of time to fully engage all of the tenants in the buildings. Although we did end up significantly delaying the rent increases and forcing an improvement in living conditions, some tenants had already given up and moved out in the fall of 2016. Despite our best efforts, it takes a lot of time to get 30+ apartments-worth of individuals with a variety of language barriers on the same page and organized. In the future, we need to find ways to build more prep time into our campaigns, or else get it done faster while still being thorough.

We are still very proud of having helped the tenants delay the rent increases even for a few months, saving each of them hundreds of dollars and giving families who had to move more time to find other housing. In the process, we learned a lot about how to navigate the subpar legal systems in place for tenants. While these systems helped us create some breathing space, it ultimately still came down to ourselves and our direct action tactics to actually get the repairs made. Meeting all of our repair demands was definitely a costly experience for the new owners of the building. However, it was nothing compared to the human cost of making people live in slum conditions.

The Thai Columbian campaign also brought several fantastic individuals and organizers into our organization who were tenants at the complex. As always, one of our most important goals in a campaign (secondary only to getting the demands met) is to develop organizing skills amongst the individuals we are working with so that in the future, they can assist in other organizing campaigns while knowing that they have Seattle Solidarity Network watching their back should any other predatory landlords or bosses decided to wrong them. We are only as strong as the people who make up this organization and gaining active organizers is a critical component of continuing to build a vibrant resistance to capitalism and all of its toxic consequences in our community.

Seattle Solidarity Network remains committed to the fight against gentrification in our community as it represents an all-out attack on the working class at the hands of those who already have the most. If you or somebody you know is experiencing wrongdoing in the workplace or housing, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us by call or text at 206-673-6074 or by email at info@seasol.net. If you are part of a solidarity network and need advice on a campaign or are looking to start one, please get in touch with us as well. We want to continue to be a resource for organizers across the globe as we each begin to take action in our respective communities to build a strong and responsive network to fight alongside the working class.

Published by , in Uncategorized.

Fight begins for decent living conditions at Thai Columbian

For years, the landlords of the Thai Columbian apartments in Beacon Hill have failed to maintain habitable living conditions. The buildings have been infested with rats, roaches, and mold. Water leaks through ceilings and walls. Garbage piles up uncollected outside. Walls, floors, doors, and appliances are broken. There is a gap in an outdoor walkway railing through which a child has already fallen three stories, causing serious injury.

When the property changed owners and management in late summer of 2016, nothing changed — except the new owners posted huge rent increases. Fed up with appalling conditions and equally appalled by the rent increase, tenants are organizing to demand decent living conditions.

In early November, a group of around 35 SeaSol supporters and tenants delivered a letter to Tecton Property Management demanding essential repairs for over half of the 40 units. Since then, Tecton has begun making repairs at the apartment buildings. However, almost all of the repairs are being done to empty units, while the tenants continue to face extreme issues within their own units that are largely going unaddressed.

To add insult to injury, while tenants were able to get the initial rent increase notice rescinded due to the format of the original notice, Tecton has now posted a new notice for a major rent increase set for 2/1/2017.

Join us to tell Tecton that their greed cannot take precedence over renters’ rights to decent living conditions. Here’s how you can help:

– join us at upcoming actions. Get in touch at www.seasol.net/contact 
- are you a Tecton renter? Share stories at: www.slumlordwarning.com/tecton

It’s time to fight back.

Published by , in Uncategorized.

A win and a loss: Prospero and the Silver Cloud Fight


Our dear friend and comrade, Prospero, passed away quietly on July 18 while enjoying a movie at the theater. SeaSol and Prospero had just won the fight against Silver Cloud Hotels on the 16th. We are incredibly lucky to have gotten the chance to know Prospero. We will remember him for his kindness, generosity, and determination to fight for justice.

Prospero was a warm and humble man, but also a tenacious fighter. He worked hard, washing dishes and working as a custodian until the end of his life. Despite old age and failing health, he stepped up again and again to participate in SeaSol, first for Neftali’s fight against Greystar last summer and then for his own, because that was what he believed in. In strategy discussions at meetings, he often said, “We need to hit them harder!” We never saw him happier than on the picket line.

Prospero worked for Silver Cloud Hotels for several years as a dishwasher for their in-house restaurant, Jimmy’s, before suffering a heart attack on the job. His manager was reluctant to let him leave work and refused to call an ambulance, but eventually paid for a taxi to take Prospero to the hospital. While Prospero was recovering, the manager at the Stadium Silver Cloud Hotel fired him for having a heart attack, using the outrageous excuse that Prospero “no call, no showed” while he was in surgery for a heart attack he suffered at work. In addition to unjustly and illegally firing Prospero, Silver Cloud stole the accrued sick and vacation pay Prospero had earned over the past two years rather than paying out the leave at the end of his employment. Their actions were in violation of the federal Family Medical Leave Act, city law, and universal rules of human decency. They thought they could get away with mistreating and stealing from a poor, 76-year-old man. They assumed Prospero would not stand up to them. They were wrong.

Prospero made efforts to contact management for months to discuss the unjust firing and stolen wages, to no avail. He came to the Seattle Solidarity Network at the recommendation of a friend who had seen SeaSol in action in the past. When he first came around, we had no capacity to take on new fights. That never stopped him from doing his best to make it to every meeting in spite of his health. He helped out with other people’s fights, which we won with his help, not once asking us when we would be able to begin his. He wanted to help everyone that he could. When we finally were able to begin his fight in late 2015, we discussed our demand for the fight and what we would consider a win. He was adamant that it was not about the money for him, that it was about letting management know that they can’t treat people the way they treated him. Most importantly, he wanted to show his former coworkers that it is possible to stand up for yourself in the workplace. In late January 2016, Prospero and a group of forty fellow SeaSolers delivered a demand to the manager of the Silver Cloud: Pay Prospero his accrued sick and vacation leave, or face further direct action from SeaSol. Unwisely, the company did not respond.

For six months, we engaged in a tireless direct action campaign against the hotel chain. With support from our comrades in the Portland Solidarity Network, we postered around Silver Cloud hotels and handed out fliers in both cities. We held a series of noisy early-morning pickets in front of the Seattle hotels, very successfully annoying management and guests. We had a noisy late night picket complete with a message projected on the side of the hotel (our first light action) labeling Silver Cloud “wage thieves.” We visited the owner, Jim Weymouth, in his wealthy Medina neighborhood multiple times to alert him and his neighbors of the injustice Prospero suffered working at his hotel. One of these visits involved a land picket in front of the Weymouths’ 6-million-dollar home and a simultaneous lake flotilla on the water behind the house. We reached out to companies who hold conferences at Silver Cloud, discouraging them from doing business with the hotel.

We had another picket in the works when Prospero received his long-awaited check in the mail. We grieve the loss of our friend and comrade, and take some comfort in knowing that he got to enjoy a little taste of victory while he was still with us. We will have a gathering this month to celebrate Prospero and the Silver Cloud fight. For details, please contact info@seasol.net.