When Condominiums Become a Living Hell

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities Blog

I’ve been seeing a lot of reports on run-down, uninhabitable condominiums in the past year or so. This particular condo, Columbia City, is located in Seattle. It consists of 15 units, all inhabited by tenants. The photos tell the story — roaches, rats, mold, broken appliances, and more plague the building. The conditions are deplorable. The units are currently owned by Carl Haglund, who plans on doubling rents in order to fix up the building.

See for yourself:

Families protest ‘unlivable’ conditions in Seattle condo

For readers who think that condos are meant to be owned as “affordable” homes, here is yet another example of the grim reality of many condo projects across the country. The building developers originally market to individual unit owners. Quite a few of these were once built as apartments or motels, and later converted to condominiums.

The problem with condos is that not all owners intend to actually live in their units. Many will buy one or more condos as an investment and then rent them to tenants. Some will own for a few years, then move out but hold onto the unit as a source of rental income, especially if they are unable to get their money back on a sale.

Within a few years, a new or remodeled condominium can morph from mostly owner occupants to absentee landlords. In most cases, the project becomes more like an apartment building (or set of buildings) with multiple landlords and poor management. That’s because there’s no agreement about how to manage the affairs of the association.

As my grandma use to say, “too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the soup.” When there are too many landlords, with different priorities, what usually happens is deferred maintenance and financial mismanagement of Association funds. Most casual landlords don’t care much, as long as those rent checks keep coming in. Some of those owner-landlords eventually stop paying their share of assessments. That puts more strain on the Association, and leads to more deferred maintenance.

One by one, owners begin to abandon ship. Some sell. Some walk away. Eventually, If any owners are left, they are forced to sell to the majority share holder. Then, as in the case of Columbia City, one owner will purchase all of the units and take over.

That often leads to rent increases and evictions for the tenants. And in the meantime, tenants in search of affordable housing often have no option but to live in poorly managed, unsafe, unsanitary conditions. Many of these tenants will face great difficultly finding alternative housing with rents they can afford.

And of course, there’s no guarantee a new owner will be a good apartment manager, even if the units are actually repaired and remodeled. I wonder what will become of Columbia City a year or two from now?

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