Ron Sims isn’t going to let the Port of Seattle tear down Burien’s Lora Lake Apartments without a fight. Last week, the King County Executive started court action that aims to take the Port’s property using the power of eminent domain— a highly unusual tactic for one branch of government to use against another.
On July 20, at Sims’ request, the King County Housing Authority filed a petition in Superior Court to condemn the apartment complex, which the agency has operated for the Port as moderately-priced rentals since 2005. In the short term, the lawsuit could stop demolition of 162 of Lora Lake’s now vacant 234 units, which the Port was preparing to tear down to create a buffer zone for its third runway.
Port Commissioner Bob Edwards responded this week by putting a motion before the five-member commission calling on Port management to halt demolition and negotiate with the county, which has made an offer to buy the property for $18 million. But the commission won’t vote on the measure before Aug. 7.
Both moves follow the July 19 arrest of nine homeless people who barricaded themselves into two units of the complex, which has turned into a bureaucratic battleground over the issue of affordable housing. With rental prices soaring in the Seattle area as a spate of older apartments are torn down or turned into condos, homeless advocates and Sims – chair of the county’s Committee to End Homelessness – are hoping to knock some social and financial sense into the Port.
“As uncomfortable as it is to be in the position of a legal dispute,” says Kurt Triplett, Sims’ chief of staff, of the condemnation action, “when you weigh that against the tens of millions it would cost to replace the housing, there are times you need to stand up.”
The Port bought the Lora Lake complex in 1998 as part of plans for a new runway that’s set to open next year. But only 72 of the units are in a federally required flight safety zone that must be cleared for the new runway. The City of Burien, however, has rezoned the area along state Route 518 for commercial use in hopes of attracting light industry or a big-box store to the same property.
For six months, housing advocates have lobbied Burien and the Port not to tear down the 162 units that aren’t in the buffer zone. Earlier this month, Sims and the housing authority offered $18 million to buy the property, but the Port declined, citing the city’s plans for commercial redevelopment.
Triplett says the offer is a good deal. It’s based on high-value residential use, he says, and would give the Port roughly $11 million more than it could get from a commercial developer. Instead of razing the 162 apartments, he says, the Port could leave them and use part of its $11 million windfall to build much needed infrastructure that would attract the type of light industry or retail Burien is seeking.
The city, which wants to see the complex go, proposed moving some of the 22 buildings to a new site, but the county executive rejected the idea as far more costly than simply leaving the $30 million complex in place, Triplett says. In a July 16 letter to Port CEO Tay Yoshitani, Sims requested that the $18 million purchase offer be brought to the Port Commission for a vote – one that Sims promised to abide by after the public got a say.
Yoshitani failed to do that, Triplett says, leaving the county little choice but to sue, even if it doesn’t work in the long run.
“It’s not clear who would prevail in a final court decision,” Triplett says. “There are arguments on both sides, but it gives us the opportunity to stop the bulldozing and keep talking.”
That’s what Port Commissioner Bob Edwards is calling for in his resolution, which is supported by fellow Commissioner Alec Fisken. A Port spokesperson did not return calls regarding the condemnation action.
“It is a dramatic step,” Triplett says, but “that’s exactly what we’ve learned we need to end homelessness. If you have to build 1,000 units a year for 10 years,” he says of goals set in the county’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, “you don’t get there if you start by bulldozing 162 units.”