Earl and Denise Ecklund, owners of the Lockhaven Apartments, didn’t realize renovations by the new owner would drive so many residents out.
Former Lockhaven owners: 'We were naive'
By Peggy Sturdivant
Earl F. Ecklund Jr. was born in 1945 but has no memory of a time in his life that his family didn’t own Lockhaven Apartments, at least until August 26, 2013.
In the uproar since Lockhaven’s sale to Goodman Real Estate and Pinnacle’s initial mismanagement of a tenant relocation process, I contacted the Ecklunds, who are still part of the equation.
Earl and Denise Ecklund are now living in the family house on Sunset Hill, where his parents lived from 1945 until their respective deaths in the late 1990’s. Although they managed a rare two-night getaway since the sale, they’re still Ballard.
When a tenant got locked out last week the call was forwarded to the Ecklund’s home phone. A mistake, but fifty years of being “the number to call” will not be erased overnight or even over the next few months.
In fact the Ecklunds still talk about Lockhaven in the present tense and using a collective “we.” I couldn’t help but wonder what it is like for them to see their former tenants, displaced en masse for renovations and rallying against the rent increases.
When Earl and Denise Ecklund sat down with me for four hours, we started and ended at the same place: “You can’t control what a buyer does with the property once it’s sold.” In between, we went back to the beginning.
Earl Ecklund Sr. spotted a foreclosed building for sale and bought it while working as a letter carrier on First Hill. He had already helped his mother purchase an apartment building by having 29 fellow workers co-sign at $100 apiece. After rent payments covered the mortgage and bills Earl realized it was a better situation than working for the post office. Acquiring and selling other apartment buildings, Earl and Ruby Ecklund applied the business model being employed by Lockhaven’s new ownership, whereby improvements allow for more rent increases.
After 1967, the Ecklunds focused on just one property: Lockhaven. They were on-site 6-7 days a week. On-call every day. Earl Sr. would arrive in his suit, and change into his work clothes as needed. Earl’s mother Ruby kept the books and did the clean-outs of apartments between tenants. After she was widowed Earl’s sister lived above the property management office. Earl’s older brother Ralph was a botanist and horticulturist who turned the grounds into his rhododendron species garden, but ‘allowed’ his brother to mow the grass.
Younger by 15 years Earl Jr. was the only one small enough to go inside the furnace boiler units to scrub the tanks with a metal brush every summer. Perhaps for this reason Earl Jr. left home after graduating from Ballard High School in ’62 and kept his distance from the family business for many, many years. He did his post-Doctoral studies in Mathematics and Computer Science. He met Denise at Illinois State; he was faculty and she was a Computer Science major.
While the rest of the family centered their lives at Lockhaven, Earl and Denise stayed in academia, at Oregon State University, two years in Oslo, a faculty appointment for Denise in Edinburgh. They always visited and helped with rent letters and computerizing the accounting systems. Their roles increased after Earl Sr. and Ruby died; Earl’s older sister was already in a nursing home.
In 2004 Ralph Ecklund collapsed while working on the grounds at Lockhaven. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was never able to return to work. Earl returned immediately from Edinburgh and Denise followed. They’ve managed Lockhaven ever since, even living on-site for five years (Rm. #2 in 3047).
“There have always been offers,” Earl Jr. said as we arrived back at the present, “Some remarkably tempting. My father was very close to accepting one in the 70’s.” In terms fitting a mathematician, he detailed unresolved corporation issues that complicated capital gains taxes, and “rogue shares.
“There’s other family,” Earl said, “As president I was responsible for all investors.” Over the last decade Earl Jr. would review the potential net benefit (after taxes) of a sale versus continued ownership, and until last spring it didn’t add up.
“We tried to step back from managing,” Denise Ecklund said. “We have tried and tried, but if anybody called us they knew they would get an ear.”
They interviewed property managers and were turned down because third-party companies generally make their money from a percentage on lease renewals and commissions on new tenants. The turnover rate and the rents were too low.
Earl and Denise just celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary. They wanted to become retired academics, not owner/managers. When their agent listed the property in 2012 they still thought there was only a 50/50 chance of a sale. Their greatest fear in selling was that Lockhaven would simply be razed, or developed with a “build to the curb” mentality.
They were surprised to have seven interested parties, then two. Goodman Real Estate’s offer was the most viable. The Ecklunds knew of John Goodman, his Ballard roots, his home nearby. Knew, “he has a charitable side and an aggressive business side.” They recall his words, “I will be a good steward for the property.”
The Ecklunds had seen the market analysis; they knew their rents were comparatively low. “Maybe we didn’t do them any favors,” Earl Ecklund said of the short and long-term tenants. “We didn’t set out to be affordable housing.
In any given year the average turnover was one-third. The Ecklunds did remodels after move-outs and major renovations when tenants moved out in what they called “stacks” within a unit. They knew the buyers would remodel; it’s a rare prospective tenant not shocked by lack of dishwasher. But they seem almost as surprised as the tenants at the mass displacement.
“We were naïve,” Denise Ecklund said.
The rents proposed for Lockhaven after renovations are also at a higher range than what they’d seen in the market analysis, but they always raised rents after a remodel as well. Doing the renovations at one time probably makes better business sense Earl admitted.
However what’s happening with the tenant evictions prompted Earl to tell me a story about a middle manager he’d encountered who was called Neutron Dave, for his impersonal tactics. The nickname referred to the effects of the neutron bomb, which left buildings standing but the inhabitants dead.
“You can’t control what a buyer does,” Earl repeated, his oh-so-blue Swedish eyes almost transparent. “The only thing we could have done differently was not to sell at all.”
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