Displacement Coalition files code complaint against University Unitarian Church’s plan to demolish homes for parking lot

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“Activist church” would displace ten residents receiving assistance from Community Psychiatric Clinic (CPC)

Church ignores law restricting demolition of housing for parking lot and city inspectors ask for ‘correction’; Coalition also says Church may have violated just cause and tenant relocation laws

Last week, The Seattle Times published a front-page story about University Unitarian Church’s plan to tear down 3 homes in Northeast Seattle rented to 10 formerly homeless people… for a parking lot.  Community Psychiatric Clinic (CPC) has managed the homes for years behalf of the Church.  The units are offered to people with mild mental health issues and also receive services from CPC.

The Times story does not make clear why church leaders could not include the parking ‘on-site’ incorporated directly into their renovation plan. (CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the houses are on the opposite side of the street from the church. In fact, the three houses are on the same side.)

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The church easily could incorporate parking into their renovation plans instead of demolishing these homes serving low income families

The story left us scratching our heads since we are aware of city legislation passed some 20 years ago barring demolition of existing structurally sound housing for a ‘principle use’ parking lots.  (Recently the City Council watered down this legislation allowing developers to abandon rental homes and then later demolish them, but the prohibition on demolition for a parking lots remains.)

On this basis, we decided to file a formal complaint against the Church with the “Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI)”. Our complaint initially referenced violations of the Seattle Municipal Code barring demolition for a parking lot, but we soon added violations of the City’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance (TRAO) and the ‘Just Cause’ eviction law. If you’d like to follow along with our complaint, here’s a look at a slightly abridged version followed by the head of SDCI reply and our follow up response.

Our complaint to Director of SDCI Nathan Torgelson

Dear Director, As the organization that had a direct hand in Council approval of provisions barring demolition of existing housing for principle use parking lots, we’d like to know if the City’s enforcement division has a response to University Unitarian’s plan to demolish three low income rental single family homes for a parking lot. The homes are, we believe, located directly south of the church along 35th Ave NE east side.  (Correction: earlier we mistakenly said the homes were on 25th)

A recent article in The Seattle Times provided proof of the Church’s plans involving removal of the three homes and displacement of 10 low income and special needs residents.  According to the Times’ article, their parking lot is deemed necessary to accommodate church goers and will be done in conjunction with their planned $17 million church renovation. However, we are not aware of allowances and removal of restrictions on demolition for principle use parking lots in cases like these. Further, the church’s renovation could easily occur without requiring removal of these homes. It is incumbent on the city’s code officers to enforce provisions barring their removal for a parking lot and to advise the church it must pursue other options.

Please let us know the Department’s on-going and immediate enforcement of the code in this case and status of the church’s plans to rectify what appears to be a violation of city restrictions?  We look forward to hearing from you? (We also filed a complaint thru your website complaint system but would expect also a reply to this email from you).  Thank you for your response in advance.

– John V. Fox, Coordinator Seattle Displacement Coalition   cc:  CM’s Herbold, O’Brien, Sawant & Enforcement officers w/in SDCI

Reply from Director Torgelson:

Dear Mr. Fox:

The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) is currently reviewing a Land Use Application for this project (#3027684) to allow a 3-story addition adjacent to University Unitarian Church.  The review includes demolition of the three structures and additional parking for 17 vehicles. On November 1st the zoning reviewer for the project sent a correction letter to the project contact person (an architect) with the following correction:

Corrections: 

Demolition of existing structures: Per SMC 23.40.006 no permit for demolition of a structure containing a dwelling unit may be issued if the new use is for non-required parking. The parking analysis shows proposed parking in excess of what is required by code. Please show how demolition of the three existing single family residences is allowed.

We have not yet received a response to this correction notice. The project remains under review.

Please let me know if you have additional questions.

And SDC’s reply to Director Torgelson’s reply

Thank you Mr. Torgelson.  We will of course look forward to an opportunity to review in more detail the church’s plans and their response to your inquiry with them, i.e., how can they explain why their renovation plans necessitate removal of those homes for a parking lot and why it does not violate these demolition restrictions. From our vantage point and being familiar with the site, there likely are numerous approaches to church renovation that could integrate parking into the design on site without reaching across the street and removing these homes.  

Violations of TRAO and Just Cause: Something we neglected to mention in our first email, there also appear to be violations of the TRAO and Just Cause going on here too. We’d like to formally register a complaint in this regard as well. From the Times’ article, the church assembled tenants back in June and were told they’d have to move. At that point, it does not appear the Church met its obligation to inform the tenants of their rights under TRAO which include notice, relocation assistance, and the right to stay until permits are issued and the TRAO process is completed. And absence permits/compliance with TRAO its an unjust eviction.  

We’d like to request that your department make the proper contacts with the church to alert them to these violations and their obligations under TRAO and Just Cause as well and hopefully before tenants have been prematurely and unlawfully removed.  

Thank you for your cooperation. We’ve left a message with TRAO/Just Cause enforcement officer Jim Metz as well to file this latter complaint directly with him and look forward to hearing back from you folks. 

– John Fox for the Displacement Coalition

We’ll be sure and keep you posted on the church’s response to SDCI’s letter and their follow-up, as well as steps we’ll be taking to address this. The actions by University Unitarian in this case seem totally out of character for a church that prides itself on its long history of social activism and advocacy.

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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