Tenants in uncertainty after the sale of a “naturally affordable” apartment building | August 17-23, 2022

Tenants in a Capitol Hill apartment complex are fighting to stay put after their building – an example of “naturally affordable” housing in Seattle – was sold to a private company.

Meagan Angus calls the historic Madkin Apartments home, which sits at the intersection of the Central District, Capitol Hill and Madison Park neighborhoods. Angus – the president of the building’s recently formed tenants’ association – and her neighbors organize to prevent the displacement of the building’s residents.

Built in 1905, the Madkin is a four-story building with a basement and 23 units. It has become embedded in the history of Seattle’s black community; prior to the recent sale, it was owned by three successive generations of Black Seattleites.

William Hawkins, a World War I veteran, purchased the building in 1947. It was later owned by couple Robert and Esther Madkin, for whom the building was renamed. The Madkins were prominent members of Seattle’s black community, participating in the NAACP and civil rights lawsuits. In 1956, Esther hosted Rosa Parks in the building for a press conference during a fundraising trip for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The building is also home to many artists and creatives, including Grammy Award-winning guitarist BluMeadows.

Tenants in the building say the previous landlord, Fally Tyson, intentionally kept the rent below market to keep the units affordable. This allowed residents to stay in the building for decades and create a real sense of community with their neighbors – a rarity in Seattle’s housing market.

Tyson died in 2020 at the age of 79.

Madkin tenants – who won the proverbial lottery by having a landlord like Tyson, who intentionally lost extra profits by renting below market rate – may now have to scramble to find new accommodation if the new landlord decides to raise his rent.

Anthony Williams, a retiree living on Social Security benefits, said he’s lived in the Madkin for more than 40 years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he taught kung fu.

Joey Barlowe has lived at Madkin Apartments for 15 years. “The experience has been great,” he said. “It’s the longest time I’ve ever lived in a house. It really is like a house. It’s the only house I know of in Seattle. My neighbors are great. The community is great. The previous owner was just a gem. He has always kept, as we have talked about, the rents below the market. Very reasonable.”

Apartments like the Madkin have been championed by proponents of the landlord industry as “natural affordable housing”. In March, Seattle City Councilwoman Sara Nelson said supporting this type of housing was key to maintaining affordability. Nelson has previously said Seattle’s robust pro-renter regulations can impose onerous demands on “mom and pop” landlords, pushing them to sell rather than rent their homes at affordable rates.

The experience of Madkin’s tenants suggests that this type of market-provided affordable housing is tenuous and rare. “You shouldn’t have to be a wealthy person to make a home in Seattle, Angus said.

According to Violet Lavatai, executive director of the Tenants’ Union, the only way to ensure stability for tenants like the tenants of the Madkin apartments is for the government to enact rent control. Lavatai and his organization helped the tenants get organized.

“You have a group of people dictating how much people should pay in rent, and that’s a form of abuse and power,” she said. “We know that. That’s why advocates across our country are fighting for rent control.

Washington state law prohibits cities like Seattle from imposing caps on rents or rent increases.

Shortly after Madkin tenants learned of their building’s potential sale in early spring 2022, resident Liz Tyson handed out fliers to other neighbors in the building. They began meeting regularly and hoped that a nonprofit housing provider would buy the building. However, by the time they were able to establish links with local nonprofits, the building was sold.

Two months ago, the building was listed for $6.25 million. Tyson’s sisters, who now own the property, recently found a buyer, but as of press time details of the deal remain unknown to the building’s tenants or the general public. CBRE, the real estate firm that represented the sisters, declined to disclose the identity of the buyer.

“A big part of our fight here is to maintain an environment where only normal people can continue to make a living in the middle of the city,” Angus said.

Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.

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