Tenants fear sale of building
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:16 PM
"They are potential victims of the island's economic change, these 13 modest-income renters on Madison Avenue.They fear that the wheels of commerce may carry them off the island, where some were born and have lived their entire life.Their apartment building at 550 Madison Avenue - a low-key, brown complex, just north of Wyatt Way - is in the process of being sold. And if the transaction goes through, residents fear that rent increases would drive them out of the building and off of Bainbridge.We were told 'you will not be living in this building at these rents very much longer,' said Jeff Hyskell, who said he talked to one prospective buyer last Friday morning. But where are we going to go?In a sense, the building's tenants have been victims of the past generosity of building owner Vicki Holmstrom of Kingston.Holmstrom, despite runaway property values around the island, has not raised rents in the building for many years. Tenants pay roughly $400 per month for one-bedroom units, the same amount paid at government-subsidized apartments.Hyskell described Holmstrom's low rents as her Christian ministry to the needy.Holmstrom called the low rents doing (the tenants) a favor. And by her own math, she has lost $780,000 since 1976 by not raising rents.I'm going to be 68 (years old), Holmstrom said in an interview this week. I've been doing the work there, and I can't continue. I'm getting to the stage in life where I have to look at selling.Sale comes out of the blueThe first the residents heard about a possible sale of the building was last Wednesday morning, when Holmstrom said she was bringing a possible buyer by Friday morning.On Saturday, residents say, they were told that it was done deal. But they say they were told almost nothing else.While no deal has closed, one prospective purchaser is island real estate agent Craig Clark, a principal in the Johansson-Clark real estate firm.Clark confirmed this week that he has made an offer on the property, but described the situation as preliminary.I'm taking a look at it, Clark said. I've made an offer and talked to the seller, but I have made no decision.Clark declined to comment further.The lack of solid information leaves the residents feeling vulnerable and afraid. Any significant rent increase - by any buyer - will force them out of the community, they say.Everybody I know and love is here on the island, said Betty Hughes, an island native who works at the AM/PM store on High School Road. But there's no way I can stay on the island if there is a big rent increase.Hughes' sister Linda Morgan, who works at Safeway, said the same thing.After 40 something years, I'm going to have to move off the island, she said. Being able to walk to work is an advantage not only to her, but the the community, Morgan said.When we had a big snowstorm a few years ago, I was the only one in the deli section who could get to work, she said.Jeff Hyskell's wife Annie, who works at Winslow Hardware, is concerned not only for the loss of her home, but her job.I want to continue to live here for the quality of life, but I don't drive and can't commute, she said. Because Jeff is disabled, Annie Hyskell said, she needs to be able to get to him on short notice.What the residents want, Jeff Hyskell said, is an agreement from whoever buys the building that any rent increase will be gradual.If (they) would agree to raise rents no more than 10 percent a year for three years, we could live with that, he said.The below-market rents are a deal, but the deal hasn't been entirely one-sided, residents say. A trade-off for low rent has been some deferred maintenance, and some do-it-yourself fixes.My dad has replaced three of the doors here, Morgan said. And there's a hole in the floor under the dishwasher that you have to plug up with a towel because the draft is so strong. But that's a whole lot better than moving away.Housing group was bypassedOne possible way to maintain the property as affordable might be a sale to the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority, which has purchased other apartment buildings to keep them affordable. But Holmstrom chose not to investigate that option.I don't want to get involved with the government, she said. They get in your life and don't get out.Significant rent increases in the building would be only the latest loss of housing opportunities for moderate-to-low wage earners on Bainbridge. Two long-affordable apartment buildings in the Fort Ward area are slated to be sold as condominiums.While reluctant to point fingers at anyone, Gabriele Barrett, who works at Island Grill, sees the problem as emblematic of changes on the island.This apartment is a microcosm of the old island, she said. It is our home. We work together in and for the community.I have a strong commitment to living on the island, but I couldn't afford it without this place - I'm barely making it with rent at this level.Gloria Gaetz, an office manager and massage therapist, sees the problem as a clash of values.People on the island have to ask themselves whether they want dollar bills in place of people who are of service, she said. "