Sarah Howe sat outside her apartment in her motorized wheelchair, gently rocking back and forth.
Diagnosed with Norrie disease at 21, she’s blind and has trouble hearing, but wields an unmistakable smile and caustic sense of humor.
Now 42, Howe and her emotional support cat, Miracle, stayed inside the roughly 500-square-foot space she’s rented for the last three years. Howe told me she survives off the $790 a month she receives in supplemental support income, paying $570 of it for rent.
Up a flight of stairs, Matt Yablon is a 56-year-old former auto mechanic who also lives off supplemental support income — $1,000 a month. Recently, he said doctors gave him about a year to live, the result of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
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Standing in the doorway of his apartment, Yadlon said that up until earlier this month he figured he’d die here.
Now, he doesn’t know what the future holds. He’s afraid he might die in his car.
Howe and Yadlon both live in the Tiki Apartments in Tacoma, just off South 12th Street near state Route 16.
And both are terrified, thanks to the recent sale of the property and the surprise notices to vacate they received the next day.
They have no idea where they’ll go, or how they’ll possibly move with the short notice they’ve been given.
Mostly, they're in disbelief.
“I don’t know,” Howe said when asked where her next home might be, the tears beginning to flow. “I don’t care if you tell your readers that I cried because I’m not ashamed of it.”
If anyone should be ashamed in all of this, it's certainly not Howe.
The Tiki Apartments were purchased by the Seattle-based CWD Investments LLC earlier this month. On April 5, residents in all 58 units received a notice from Allied Residential, the third-party company that now manages the property. The notices indicated that residents in half of the units have until April 30 to vacate. Residents in the other half have until the end of May.
The notice said that the property will be “going through a major renovation in the next few months” and offered “a one-time relocation benefit of $900 … exchanged for your apartment keys on the prearranged move out date.”
Chad Duncan is the lone registered member of CWD Investments LLC. No one living at the Tiki Apartments who I talked to had heard of Duncan, and they certainly haven't heard from him since the sale.
A young, successful developer with a history of projects in Tacoma and Seattle, Duncan was praised in a 2016 article in Daily Journal of Commerce that specifically referenced the “strategy he employs: buy apartments that need fixing up, rehab them and raise rents.”
When pressed about the concerns raised by many current Tiki Apartments residents, Duncan pushed back.
“We intend to work with those in hardship that communicate such,” Duncan said in an emailed statement, after declining a phone interview. “We are not heartless.”
Asked in a follow-up email what this unspecified hardship assistance might look like, Duncan said, “I’m not going on record with examples.”
Duncan declined to answer questions about his plans for the property, the health and disability concerns of some of the residents and whether he could have given residents more time to find a new place to live. He also didn't respond to a question about whether $900 was anywhere near enough money to actually mitigate the disruption he's causing to people’s lives.
What Duncan did say, however, spoke volumes.
“Most of these people were living in squalor and an unsafe environment," he claimed, citing alleged issues at the Tiki Apartments like rats and cockroaches “For most, moving will be an improvement.”
Go ahead and sit with that for a moment.
Though what's transpiring at the Tiki Apartments feels so very wrong by most standards, the notices issued by Duncan and Allied Residential meet the letter of the law, according to Mark Morzol, Managing Attorney at the Tacoma-Pierce County Housing Justice Project.
While a handful of the tenants could potentially challenge the move in court, Morzol said, for the most part, because the tenants at the Tiki Apartments were renting month-to-month, 20 days notice is all they’re entitled to.
There’s no need for a landlord to offer a justification or cause, he said.
Morzol called the situation the “largest” mass displacement he’s seen in his time working for the Housing Justice Project and confirmed that a handful of current Tiki Apartment tenants have reached out to his agency for help.
Morzol also specifically questioned the real value of the $900 Allied and Duncan offered displaced tenants, noting that — as far as business decisions go — the cost for a landlord to go through the eviction process would be much greater.
"It's actually a cost-benefiting move to entice the tenants to move before the eviction process," Morzol concluded. "It can't be confused as charity. The amount is insufficient to the actual cost it takes to move."
The Tenants Union of Washington — which held a meeting at the Tiki Apartments on Thursday night — also has offered current residents assistance. So have a number of community members, spurred to action by coverage of the story by KOMO News. Some have donated cardboard boxes, which sat near the residents' mailboxes this week. Others have promised to help people move if they're able to find a new home.
“I think it very clearly illuminates the difference between illegal and immoral,” said Kate Dunphy, deputy director of the Tenants Union. “What we’re talking about is more than 50 tenants that are potentially being pushed directly into homelessness.”
Both Morzol and Dunphy noted that improved rental laws in Tacoma to protect month-to-month tenants and guarantee displaced residents relocation assistance benefits could have prevented much of this hardship. Seattle passed such a law years ago, Morzol said.
So far, Tacoma has not.
“There are folks who have been there for 14 years, and this is now a profit opportunity for the new owners,” Dunphy said. “To tell (residents) that they have to move within 20 days, who are we saying we value when that’s the way we conduct ourselves?”
The answer, of course, is clear. Increasingly, we live in a world where personal gain is all that matters, and ethics become so relative that they no longer have meaning.
In other words, we live in a society where profiteers like Duncan win —and win big — while the those living in places like the Tiki Apartments lose everything.
If that feels wrong, it should.
"I know when I heard about it my gut reaction was, 'Wow, that is quite a new low,'" observed Joe Lawless, the executive director at the University of Washington Tacoma's Milgard School of Business Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility. "I’ve lived in Tacoma all my life, I’ve never heard of anything like this happening here on this scale, although these market conditions haven’t existed ever before either.
"It’s pretty shocking in terms of the lack of empathy for people."
In their sudden uncertainty, Howe and Yadlon are not alone at the Tiki Apartments. All the current residents I spoke to have been forced out into a hot rental market that's intimidating to navigate, while barriers like low credit scores or fixed incomes are working against them. These are the barriers that brought many to the Tiki Apartments in the first place.
Julius Rance Sr. is a 67-year-old retired Army vet who has lived here for 15 years. Rance described the situation at the Tiki Apartments as “a disaster situation, for all of us.”
William Peterson, meanwhile, shares a unit with his wife and two kids. He looks at the $1,200 in savings he has and fears his family will be forced into homelessness. Having helped his wife battle colon cancer in Unit 226, Peterson dreads having to pull his daughter out of Truman Middle School and the very real possibility that his family will have nowhere to go at the end of the month.
Every unit I visited had a similar story.
Back in front of Howe’s apartment, I offered her good luck as I Ieft.
“We don’t need luck,” Howe replied bluntly, her fight returning. “We need prayers, man.”
She might be right. Thoughts, prayers, and everything in between certainly couldn't hurt.
Yablon offered a more scorching perspective.
"They have absolutely no care or concern where we’re going. I paid these people, religiously, every month for seven years, on time in full. How can they do this to me, you know?" he wondered aloud.
"They’re heartless people. They have no soul, they have no heart."
It's hard to argue with him.