When an old apartment building goes on the market, all of a sudden, everybody starts doing the math.
The potential buyers ask: How much can I pay for this building? How much money will I have to sink into it? And can the rent I charge pay for all that?
That’s what happened at East Pike Street and Martin Luther King Jr Way in Seattle's Central Area neighborhood.
Dan Robins had his eye on an awkward little four-unit apartment building from 1941 that had sat on the market for six weeks. Like a misshapen donut, it won his heart.
“I was looking at the other large apartment buildings that were going up — Midtown Center, the Central Building up there — and seeing the success that they’re having,” Robins said.
He did the math, saw it was feasible, and quit his desk job so he could do what he'd always wanted: get back to working with his hands.
“I love taking buildings like this and taking them back to their former glory. This place just needed a lot of love,” he said.
But first, a renter had to move out. His name is Justin Robinson. We’ll refer to Justin and Developer Dan by their first names, because their last names are so similar.
Justin grew up in the apartment building that Dan bought. Before it sold, the old owners said the rent would probably rise by a thousand dollars after it sold. Justin knew he couldn’t afford that.
“I kind of raised some ruckus about it," said Justin. "It was like: I’m gonna leave. But I just want you to know, my math and your math don’t add up correctly and your equations aren’t right.”
There’s a city program that’s supposed to help low income renters like Justin with relocation assistance. But his eligibility was complicated by bad timing. He’d quit his job at Target to live in his mom’s apartment as her caretaker, and her name was still on the lease when she died.
Dan didn’t kick Justin out. Justin had already found his way to a homeless camp under Spokane Street by the time Dan bought the place. Justin had been there since a few months after his mom's death.
“Being out here, I wish I had some of her words, or a phone call I could make," Justin said. "There are times when I wish I could just call her and say ‘Oh my gosh, you wouldn’t believe what happened today.' To have that type of conversation — but I’m not able to do that. There’s other people who have tried, but they’re not her.”
Justin thinks about his life in that old apartment building a lot, but he hasn’t been inside since it sold. So we drove up to see it. As we drove, he noted how quickly the neighborhood has changed. “Oh my goodness, they took down the gas station," he said.
We walk the last block. That’s when he sees it – his old apartment and the patio where his family used to gather, cooking catfish on the grill.
“I could imagine the barbecue," Justin said. "I could see my mom in the kitchen probably like doing something, me probably plotting to surprise her or somehow tiptoe up the stairs."
Dan the developer saw us peeking over the patio wall. Justin told Dan how he used to live there. Dan offered us a tour.
“Yeah, so you can see we’ve done quite a few improvements in here,” Dan said, showing us around. He'd knocked down walls, added brighter paint and opened the place up.
“Knowing the 16 years that my mom was here, it still feels the exact same, still looks the exact same. But it’s just a lot brighter,” Justin said.
“This one here was my room. Right here," he said, stopping at a door.
“We built a closet in here so it could be a proper bedroom," Dan said.
“I’ve been wanting that for the longest,” Justin said, breaking into laughter.
Dan and Justin nerded out over the building’s quirks for about 10 minutes: the closet door that so easily came off its track, the fireplace that Justin's mom had never let them use.
They remembered the building's old owner, Mr. Long, who'd been a Central Area preacher for many years. Dan had taken an interest in the old owner, and did some historical research on him.
Dan talked about preserving the building's charm, and how he hoped to hold onto the building for a long time. “I’m actually fighting back tears just now, just hearing you say that,” Justin said.
He told Dan that Mr. Long would have called Dan one of his children. “You’re actually probably the perfect person to sell it to,” Justin said.
“If you are interested in moving back in, I’d be happy to accept an application,” Dan said.
It was a kind gesture. Of course, it wouldn’t solve Justin’s financial problems. It seemed like a moment Justin could have asked for help. But he didn’t.
Back at the car, I asked him why. “I noticed you didn’t tell Dan that you are currently without a house."
“If he had asked me about it, I would have told him,” Justin said. But it never came up.
“At the time it seemed like an emotional moment, even for him, as we were talking." But he didn’t want to be a burden to Dan.
Which is where policy comes in.
Remember that calculation developers make when they buy an old building? City officials realize that if you’re going to change things for people like Justin, you have to change the math.
If it’s a financial burden for developers to house low income families, most of them won’t do it.
Seattle planners have an idea for how to change the math. There’s already a very successful program that gives developers of new buildings a big tax break for offering some affordable housing.
It's called the Multi Family Tax Exemption program, or MFTE. The program has created over 3,000 middle income units in Seattle, with 600 in the pipeline.
But there’s no tax break like that for developers who renovate older apartment buildings.
Seattle officials want state legislators to change that by creating what’s called a “preservation tax exemption.” It’s just one of the 65 different strategies identified in Seattle’s affordable housing plan, known as HALA.
A tax break program like that could help preserve up to 25 percent of our older affordable housing, while still allowing it to be upgraded.
But it’s a tax break, and tax breaks cost money. The bill was left on the legislature floor last session and can’t come up again until 2018.
The city has other strategies too, but the solutions are years away, and Justin is homeless now. I drove him back to his camp site under the Spokane Street Viaduct.
That’s where he tells me how he’s turned down offers of help from his family because he doesn’t want to burden them, either.
I found that hard to understand. Justin told me that his mom was actually homeless, too, for awhile. “So I actually feel like I’m carrying on her spirit,” he said.
He said that experience made her who she was, someone who knew how to create a positive home for her children to grow up in, someone who didn’t judge others just because they were homeless.
Justin is trying to get back on his feet — on his own. He believes he can, because his mother did, too.