Josefina Lara’s apartment has a hole in the floor where maintenance destroyed a wall five years ago and told her “not to jump on it.”
She said her burner shoots sparks into the air when she heats up her stove, and she has to remove the heating element with tongs after she is done, or the burner stays on indefinitely. The railing on her balcony is wobbly and a danger to anyone who might lean on it.
Lara has no qualms with calling things like she sees them about her situation. Unjust or unfair — the translation of injusto — being just one of the descriptors she uses.
She has lived at Highland Village Apartments for 16 years, and now a developer is forcing her and 85 other families out so they can tear down the 76-unit “affordable housing” complex to build higher-priced townhomes.
Multiple families share apartments so the exact number of residents is hard to track, but 85 children in the Bellevue School District call the apartment complex home. Very few speak English as a first language, most speaking Spanish but some speaking Somali and Russian. All are near or below the poverty level.
The families at Highland Village don’t stay out of a sense of loyalty or because they are afraid of a move. In fact, some of the housing units — including Lara’s — are dilapidated, residents say.
Hilda Sinfuentes’s son has developed asthma, a fact she attributes to the mold growing from water damage in nearly every unit at the complex. Paulo Medina’s windows don’t lock, leaving his home at risk. Martha Lidia Lagos-Martinez said that if she uses a vacuum cleaner, the lights turn off because the breaker can’t handle both at once.
“We don’t stay here because we love these apartments,” Lara said. “We stay because we can’t afford to live elsewhere.”
The families at the apartments have been given until Oct. 31 to find new places to live. The apartments are scheduled to officially close in November and a project to turn the 12-building complex into 87 townhomes is slated to begin shortly thereafter, with a completion date in late 2019.
Intracorp, the developer behind the project (and previously of another controversial development in Newport Hills), is working well within legal bounds, but a forced eviction of low-income, working families leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many.
Bellevue has no tenant laws that would apply in this situation. A landlord could theoretically give a renter 20 days and no financial assistance.
Intracorp has offered each family $3,500 in relocation assistance and has given the residents several months to find new homes, even hiring a relocation specialist to help.
Lis Soldano, a representative from Intracorp, said the issue stemmed from larger housing issues in Bellevue and on the Eastside.
“The broader housing affordability issues facing Bellevue and our region are challenging — and it’s why we’ve committed to voluntary financial assistance and retaining [relocation specialist Kerry Lynch] to help residents,” she said. “Every step we’re taking to help the families at Highland Village is voluntary. So, yes we definitely feel a personal responsibility to do our part.”
The Reporter attempted to contact the apartment complex’s management, who hung up the phone without comment.
The permit application for the Highland Village Townhomes states that the new units will more than double the square footage currently on the 4.48-acre property but will sell for between $650,000 and $900,000 each. This is billed as “middle-income” in the documents.
Edi Flores, an employee at Bellevue nonprofit Jubilee Reach, has been providing support to the families and connecting them to other support organizations and nonprofits. He said the dichotomy between Bellevue official’s words and actions are striking.
“This plan pretty much goes against the city’s goal to preserve housing,” he said. “The goal is to preserve this property as one of the few affordable housing locations in Bellevue.”
According to numbers presented to Bellevue City Council, while 17 percent of Bellevue residents make less than half the area median income (less than $44,000 annually), only 6 percent of the housing in the city is affordable on that income. Section 8 housing has a two- to five-year waiting list and church organizations and nonprofits cannot bridge the gap entirely. Highland Village isn’t “affordable housing,” and the families aren’t using Section 8 vouchers, they just happen to pay below-market rent.
Families at Highland Village pay about $1,200 a month. There are children living in the units there who attend Stevenson Elementary, Sammamish and Interlake high schools, the International School and Highland Middle School. In the Bellevue School District, more than 3,700 students (or about one in five) live at or below the poverty level. More than 250 children are homeless.
Many of the same families are also dealing with the ramifications of Bellevue’s Head Start funding being entirely slashed by the Puget Sound Educational Service District.
Sandra Terretra has two daughters and a son. She has lived in the apartments for nine years. Her daughters, 14 and 12 years old, are deaf, and Bellevue provides the resources to bring them to school in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program in Edmonds. Her husband works in construction in Bellevue.
“I don’t know if I moved to Redmond or Renton if they would help provide the transportation,” she said. “I don’t know if my daughters would get the help they need.”
Sinfuentes has one son with ADHD and another with autism. She’s also afraid other school districts wouldn’t have the resources Bellevue does.
On July 8 at Stevenson Elementary School’s library, many of the families gathered to discuss action. The plan — as it has been since the Highland Village residents were told they need to leave — is to fight.
The residents have between now and the end of October to mount a legal resistance to the plan. They have the sympathy, if not the support, of many.
A proposed rent increase by the current owner of $100 in June was shot down after strong opposition from residents forced the owners’ hands.
Eastside Pathways, a child-based nonprofit in Bellevue, expressed deep concerns with the plan as it stands.
“The closure exacerbates the challenge for low-income families to find affordable housing in Bellevue,” according to the organization’s newsletter. “Subsidized housing waitlists extend at least two to five years into the future. It is not guaranteed that these students will be able to continue their education in their current schools and programs if they must relocate due to the lack of affordable housing. Uprooting these families from their established communities and support systems creates unnecessary emotional and financial stress for these children and parents, endangering their access to pathways towards success.”
A representative for the Eastside Legal Assistance Program said that group was providing legal advice to the residents.
“This is a wake-up call that we need to have more affordable housing sooner rather than later,” the representative said. “These are working families. We have to figure out a way to house these people in Bellevue. Personally, your heart goes out to them.”
Average rent in Bellevue is more than $1,700 a month, according to the King County Housing Authority. Some of the families who gathered at Stevenson said they bring home $2,000 a month. That’s impossible to live on, they said. Altough Intracorp is offering $3,500 for relocation funds, residents say that’s not good enough.
Jennifer Fischer at Bellevue Lifespring said her organization can and does offer rent assistance in dire straits, but the hundreds of Highland Village residents are more difficult to deal with all at once.
“The biggest challenge we face is awareness,” she said. “People aren’t even aware there are this many children living in poverty in Bellevue. We’ve got to break the cycle of poverty, and the way to do that is through education.”
Some of the families work construction. They are painters, landscapers, cooks, maids. They work for low wages to keep Bellevue running, and are faced with the real threat of becoming homeless, Flores said. If they cannot find housing or get an extension on the eviction date, many of them will be forcibly evicted by the King County Sheriff’s Department by a court order as winter approaches.
Bellevue Councilmember Lynne Robinson said she and her fellow council members, as well as city staff, were working furiously to find ways to improve affordable housing in the city.
“Personally, my biggest emphasis on decision making is what’s best for the children,” she said, before tearing up. “Stress can be incredibly harmful to a child’s development, and few things cause as much stress as unstable housing. This is the last thing we want to see happen to residents of our city.”
Rhonda Rosenberg, director of communications for the King County Housing Authority, said the pleas from residents and local organizations had not fallen on deaf ears. Bellevue Mayor John Stokes agreed.
Paulo Medina has been one of the organizers for the Highland Village families. He hasn’t worked in several years after an accident crushed his foot. His disability ran out recently and he said his brother has been helping with bills, causing tension in the family. Medina said that the soon-to-be displaced residents have to fight or they will be forgotten.
“If we don’t let the powers that be know that we need this, it will go away,” he said. “If we have to leave, we need more money. If we stay, they will raise the rent. We can’t win here.”
Note: Some of the subjects in the story do not speak English and were interviewed with an interpreter.