Does a lump-sum payment from the city and developers really compensate people displaced from their homes? What if theres nowhere left for low-income tenants to move?
  • Ansel Herz
  • Does a lump-sum payment from the city and developers really compensate people displaced from their homes? What if there's nowhere left for low-income tenants to move?
For the last six months, workers, seniors, folks with disabilities, and veterans have been organizing at the Lockhaven Apartments in Ballard and the Theodora Apartments in Ravenna to prevent local developer Goodman Real Estate from converting their affordable housing to expensive apartments.

Most recently, tenants at the Theodora filed a lawsuit charging that Goodman Real Estate is discriminating against people with disabilities by pursuing the redevelopment of the Theodora, a publicly subsidized building for seniors and people with disabilities. Though tenants have received a great deal of support in their organizing efforts, a common response by the media and policymakers alike has focused on relocation assistance—lump sums of money given to tenants being displaced.

It should be a foregone conclusion that tenants being displaced to make way for luxury development should be given relocation money. This money provides a vital cushion for them to avoid homelessness and find new housing. But in the city of Seattle, the focus on relocation assistance has become a distraction from what’s really happening: the mass displacement of the communities who have been here for generations, who have created the true value in our city. And relocation assistance, although necessary, doesn't work if there’s nowhere to move to.

A bit of history: The city’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance (TRAO) was adopted into law in 1990, during another period in which Seattle experienced rapid development and the loss of thousands of housing units affordable to low- and moderate-income people. Tenants fought hard for other bills that would actually prevent the destruction of affordable housing, rather than a band-aid solution that tries to compensate for the damages after the fact. What they achieved was something called the Housing Preservation Ordinance, which would've required developers who demolished or changed the use of a building to replace lost units elsewhere or contribute to a fund for low-income housing. But it was soon struck down by the state supreme court.

TRAO was enacted in the wake of that state supreme court decision. It mandates that tenants who earn below 50 percent of area median income (about $32,000 today) be paid $3,000 upon being displaced, with half the amount coming from the city and half from the developer. (Ironically, it was Triad Development, another development arm of the Goodman enterprise, that was among several plaintiffs that sued the city in 1996 seeking a ruling that TRAO was unconstitutional. But, TRAO was upheld.) At that time, Tenants Union of Washington State organizer Ginger Segel warned the Seattle Times, “Relocation assistance doesn't do any good if there’s no place to move.”

Let’s think about what $3,000 affords a displaced tenant in the current housing market.

Tina, a tenant paying $850 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in a central neighborhood in Seattle, has access to reliable bus lines, medical facilities, and grocery stores. She can take the bus to her job as a crossing guard for an elementary school, and on her way home she can stop to visit friends and family. Without notice, a developer purchases Tina’s building. After several months, the company hands Tina a check for $3,000, and tells her to move out. After a long search, Tina finds a one-bedroom apartment she can make work on her modest income. It’s $1,050 a month plus utilities, but it’s in Shoreline. Tina pays first and last month’s rent, the deposit, and all the costs associated with moving. At this point, Tina has already spent her relocation assistance money. That’s what relocation assistance was supposed to be for, right?

But remember the facts: Tina is paying $200 more in rent per month, which over one year is $2,400 more than she spent living in Seattle. Tina is now living in Shoreline with less access to the things she needs. She spends more money on transportation to her job; she has to leave work earlier to get home, she spends more time commuting, and her relationships with her friends and family deteriorate because they are no longer convenient to visit. She tries to go to her church, but without the ability to go there during the week, she has to quit committees, and she gradually loses her connection to and support from her faith community.

Tina is not an imaginary tenant. The economics of her story are based on a real person who was displaced by the impending sale of the Theodora apartments to Goodman Real Estate. In reality, this tenant actually didn't even get relocation assistance because the tenant left in a panic when the building’s current owners, the Volunteers of America, sent letters to all the tenants indicating that the building would close in a year, and without any details about their rights to Just Cause Eviction or Relocation Assistance. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in our city’s largely unregulated housing market. Displacement exacerbates segregation: low-income tenants—often people of color—are forced to move further north and further south in our city where resources are scarce, or out of Seattle all together. Again, relocation assistance doesn't do much good if there’s nowhere nearby to move.

Unfortunately, developers have found it politically convenient to follow the city’s lead in promoting cash handouts to justify predatory actions that deprive our city of its affordable housing, and even worse, to argue that they are benevolent, even gracious, developers. Goodman Real Estate’s main message to the media has been that they should be thanked for their magnanimity. They’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on relocation assistance, even hiring a relocation specialist to help move the tenants.

The thing is: If you're a developer, it’s a great bargain to provide a few thousand bucks to tenants when you stand to make millions once the tenants are out of the way. Relocation assistance acts less as a mechanism to mitigate the impacts of displacement than as an incentive for tenants to quietly leave their homes without putting up a fight. Given this, it's no surprise that developers hire relocation specialists to work exclusively on an individual basis with tenants, sandbagging tenants’ efforts at collective negotiation, all while making a tidy profit.

Even with offers of relocation assistance, many tenants refuse to be displaced. I’ve met tenants who, independent of Tenants Union advice, decided not to take relocation assistance money because they refuse to dignify a developer with the chance to justify his destruction of their home, community, and neighborhood. I’ve met tenants who understand that without housing that is affordable, a one-time payment of even $9,000 will be used up within the year and does not constitute sustainable compensation for the communities they have invested their time and energy to create. Instead, they choose to fight for a better city in which they and other tenants have a secured right to live, protected by the willingness of their neighbors to defend them and by the policies of a government that chooses people over profit. It’s time we all—city residents and policymakers alike—join them in the fight.

Eliana Horn is an organizer with the Tenants Union of Washington State.