ARTIST FACING EVICTION. Alden Mason in his Ballard art studio. He faces losing his Lock Vista home in the next six months. Steve Shay
Steep rent increases pushing seniors out
Alden Mason is faced with a dilemma similar to many seniors in Ballard who live on a fixed income: Rent increases or condo conversions are forcing many out of their homes as affordable rental opportunities here fade away.
Mason, 88, has been a resident of the Lock Vista Apartments for the past four years. But his $715 a month studio apartment, and 190 others at the complex, is being sold and converted to a condominium.
Living off Social Security and a modest pension from the University of Washington where he spent more than 30 years as a professor of art, buying a condo or a house is just out of the question.
The city projects an income of about $73,000 a year is necessary to buy the average condo in Seattle. Homeowners need to earn about $93,000 a year.
Karen Simonson, Mason's close friend, has taken on the role of realtor, looking high and low in Ballard for a new home that will meet Mason's income limitations and physical needs. He has trouble walking and would benefit from a ground floor unit close to friends who can help with day-to-day tasks.
A well-known artist in the Pacific Northwest, Mason has been called "one of the Northwest's most prolific artists." He still paints and sells his pieces out of a downtown gallery and his reticent art studio near the Ballard Bridge.
"Alden is still working," said Simonson, who is also Mason's studio assistant and an artist herself. "He needs to be in Ballard."
Simonson hasn't had much luck finding anything comparable to the Lock Vista yet, but time is running out as Mason's lease runs out in May. She's put him on wait lists for low-income senior housing in Ballard run by the Seattle Housing Authority, but turnover is only about four units a year, according to the organization. The wait lists are typically full.
"In my mind, I'm still hoping this deal (the conversion) won't go through," said Simonson.
But Chris McCarty, who manages the Lock Vista property, confirmed last week the sale is expected to go through on Dec. 31 to The Northlake Group, a development company that is already converting more than 100 Ballard rentals to condos.
Some of the units could still be saved. The Seattle Housing Authority is looking into buying at least one of the four Lock Vista buildings to preserve the affordable rentals, said Virginia Felton, a spokeswoman for the housing authority.
McCarty estimated there are about 20 seniors still living at the Lock Vista. Several have already moved out, some with his company's financial help. McCarty said he's allowed some residents to break their leases and even given a few seniors up to $1,500 in cash to aid their relocation.
"We thought it was just the right to do," he said. "It's just good business. You want to take care of your clients. They are the ones helping you pay your mortgage."
Displaced renters who earn below 80 percent of median Seattle income are entitled to a $500 relocation allowance, but the Seattle City Council is considering setting aside about $400,000 in the city's 2008 budget to match that amount.
When a notice for an annual inspection showed up on the door of Sylvia Watkins' apartment a few weeks ago she immediately became nervous, especially since that's how residents of the Lock Vista found out about the conversion of their buildings.
Watkins lives in a $865 a month two-bedroom unit "with a nice view and a washer and dryer" on Northwest 56th Street near the Lock Vista. Afraid that her building could go condo any day, too, Watkins has been exploring other options like the Senior Housing Assistance Group, "in case she has to bolt."
The closest community is near Bitter Lake, though, too far from her 98-year-old mother in Ballard.
"I like this area," said Watkins. "I don't want to move if I don't have to."
Her rent has only increased by about 7 percent in the last five years, but Watkins thinks that's probably the exception rather than the rule and fears she wouldn't able to shoulder a significant rent increase with just Social Security and a pension getting her by.
"I'm sure it will go up but I certainly hope it's not $200," she said.
The property owners decreased the rent by $10 and gave her a free parking spot five years ago when she moved in because they were having a hard time renting the unit. But that's a rare situation in Seattle nowadays.
The outlook for affordable homes within the city isn't great. Many developers say it's difficult to build rentals that are affordable to moderate wage earners because of the rising cost of construction and land.
The city Office of Housing estimates that rents are climbing by about 14 percent a year, though that number fluctuates depending on which part of the city. Ballard and citywide vacancy rates are down to 2.7 percent and condominium conversions are at an all time high.
Lock Vista resident Helen Murnane said some seniors in her building haven't been able to sleep because they're so concerned about where they will go.
Murnane, 69, moved into the Lock Vista just one year ago after she realized she couldn't afford to buy a condo in Seattle. Now, she's more than apprehensive about leaving a place that has become her "dream home."
"I want to stay here, so I really haven't made choices of what I'm going to do," said Murnane. "I don't know what I'll do."
She loves the large windows that stream natural light into her one-bedroom apartment and doesn't want to lose the sense of security she's come to feel at the Lock Vista.
"It's like living in a neighborhood," Murnane said. "You don't have to be fearful at all here."
Rebekah Schilperoort may be reached at 783.1244 or email@example.com