Dear city councilmembers: the ‘vacant buildings’ law you’re considering threatens more abandonment and loss of low income housing


Do we want more of this?  The proposed vacant buildings legislation is not a solution

Write your councilmembers: urge a NO vote on the proposed vacant building legislation or to back amendments offered by Councilmember Herbold that discourage abandonment without encouraging demolition of more occupied low cost rentals

Dear Councilmembers,

The Seattle Displacement Coalition played a large role in passage of the original legislation barring demolition of existing low cost units for parking lots or any purpose until a developer obtained their redevelopment permits.  We are writing to voice our strong concerns about the “vacant buildings” legislation you now are considering that would largely remove this restriction.  Unless the measure is amended, instead of preventing abandonment, it likely would encourage more, as well as accelerate the demolition of occupied low cost rentals, including units that otherwise might not be removed at all.  In effect, you’d be encouraging and even rewarding developers to acquire, then abandon, and demolish even more perfectly good existing occupied affordable housing in our city.

The current restrictions bar demolition for primary use parking lots or other interim uses and requiring a developer first to obtain permits for redevelopment before demolishing an existing ‘structurally sound’ residential building.  However, the current rules do not prevent the owner or the city from demolishing unsound buildings when the cost of fixing a structure “exceeds half its replacement value”.  This law, put in place about 20 years ago by a near unanimous vote of your predecessors, has been successfully working to help this city maintain its affordable and ‘structurally sound’ rental housing stock while still allowing removal of truly neglected and unsound buildings.

Contrary to assumptions by those seeking to overturn these restrictions, the current rules disincentivize and penalize developers who would vacate, neglect, and then demolish otherwise perfectly good housing.  Because of these restrictions, literally thousands of low cost units have remained open and occupied as affordable rentals for many months and even in some cases years until a developer finally got their permits.

And, to this day, a not-so-insignificant number of these low cost apartment buildings originally slated for demolition are still standing, still operated as decent structurally sound affordable rental housing.  That’s because in a number of cases, as city data indicates, applications for redevelopments requiring demolition either are postponed for many years or they fall through altogether.  A developer may find financing difficult to obtain or at higher cost, or realize later other hidden costs, and face unanticipated permit conditions – that force postponement or cancellation of plans.  Only because of the current law barring premature demolition have hundreds of units in these cases remained open, occupied, and neither demolished or abandoned.

We see nothing in the Director’s report, powerpoint or staff report for this proposed legislation where any attempt was made to study just how effective the current law has been in maintaining and keeping buildings open, choosing instead to focus on a few exceptions where in spite of penalties, a few developers have sought to evade current restrictions.  Ironically, the proposed legislation would reward these offenders and encourage more to do the same – abandon, neglect, and demolish still more structurally sound housing.

Nor was the proposed legislation written with the neighbors in mind or their concerns about a building that may be sitting abandoned and neglected next door.  This real problem is addressed only through dedication of more funding for enforcement of existing laws, and adoption of new mechanisms for enforcement targeting specifically the offenders who in these situations defy existing housing codes, and abatement laws.  This proposal, instead, uses this valid concern as an excuse to give developers an even freer hand to abandon, and then demolish existing affordable occupied and structurally sound rentals.  It’s a gift to developers and further invitation to them to prey on existing affordable housing.

The current law barring demolition for parking lots or other uses until permits are obtained for redevelopment – in most cases – serves as a deterrent to both demolition and abandonment of occupied and structurally sound housing.   Given the penalties for premature demolition, and the fact there still are costs associated with maintaining a closed building, most developers don’t abandon a structure choosing instead to keep it open, occupied, and generating at least some income until they get their permits.  Yes a few defy and ignore these costs and close a building anyway before they get permits, but doing away with the restrictions barring demolition until permits are obtained is simply a gift to these few who go this route.  It rewards them.  And worse, it will simply open the floodgates for more developers to do the same – first abandon and neglect, and then remove perfectly good housing.

The presence of the current restrictions also discourages many other developers from buying up older still occupied lower priced existing housing at all.  They look to other opportunities – because either they don’t want to become landlords even if only in the interim, or they simply aren’t equipped to assume such responsibilities – owning and operating occupied affordable rentals.

If the current restrictions are done away, you are inviting developers to acquire existing structures.  The changes  incentivize it – acquisition of existing low cost buildings and ridding the building of tenants as quickly as possible (meaning potentially more vacant buildings especially if their plans for redevelopment fall thru).  It further expedites removal of our precious unsubsidized rental housing stock.

Real solution to abandonment problem:  Enforcement! 

The building, fire, and housing codes have for years given inspectors for the city the right to enforce and order either fix-up or demolition (or proper securing) of existing abandoned truly deteriorated structures.  This authority has remained and was never taken away when the law was passed barring demolition for parking lots or until a developer got their redevelopment permits.  These laws simply are not being properly enforced and with some minor improvements and added funding for more enforcement officers would do more to address problem developers and slumlords and without putting in jeopardy more decent occupied units.

Councilmember Herbold is seeking amendments to the pending legislation that are more finely tuned to achieve this.  And she also is offering an amendment that would – reestablish and fund “the vacant building monitoring and inspection program”.  This is what’s needed more than anyting – putting teeth into enforcement of the current laws.

As the Council staff memo indicates (even they agree), as written“the proposed modified limitations on demolition of housing may have the unintended consequence of reducing the City’s overall housing supply. The Council could consider different time periods or structure type and location criteria to mitigate that risk

If the current legislation is approved as is, speculators and developers will be more interested and emboldened to acquire existing older occupied buildings and at higher prices (which will also incentivize more longterm existing owners to sell their buildings to these speculators as well).

These speculative “sharks” then will be able to buy and lock more of these existing buildings into purchasing agreements long before they fully complete plans or financing for the new development and longer still before they get permits for any future use. They’ll know that as soon as they do that in only a few weeks (plus any added time it’ll take to meet requirement of the Tenant Relocation Assistance Law or TRAO – assuming they haven’t illegally pushed them out before that) – they then can kick the tenants out and jettison any responsibility and cost they otherwise would have to manage, maintain, and operate for the current tenants thru a much longer permitting process.  Nor is there a guarantee, the developer would then demolish the building.  And if they don’t, and building just sits abandoned, the same problem of enforcement prevails.  Will the city resources and staff be there to do the job of enforcing existing housing and abatement laws to prevent this.

Either amend or reject this legislation as it is currently written.  It’s a blueprint for more demolition and displacement and abandonment and neglect. Many of us worked long and hard to secure passage of this legislation to prevent premature removal of decent structurally sound housing and now you may do away with these protections.


John V. Fox for the Seattle Displacement Coalition 206-632-0668

If you’ve read this far, please consider calling or emailing your councilmembers to oppose the current legislation as written… either kill or amend it.  Councilmember Herbold’s office also can provide more information for you on her amendments and some details may be found here (see item 3 Committee agenda).  The Land Use Committee may vote next week on the bill and Herbold’s amendments.

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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