As early as this November, in a down-down-down-down-down-ballot election in the Southwest Seattle-area neighborhood of South Park, a few dozen residents will decide if they want to remain an oddball sliver of unincorporated King County in the middle of Seattle, or if they want to become part of the city. The landlord to more than a few of them, George Harris, is strongly against annexation–and he’s letting his tenants know how he feels, urging them to vote “no” when the proposal, decades in the making, finally comes up for a vote as soon as this November.
Only about 80 registered voters live in the section of South Park known as the “sliver by the river,” a stripe of unincorporated King County that includes several blocks of single-family houses along the western bank of the Duwamish River. The fate of the sliver, along with an adjacent industrial area known as the Duwamish Triangle, is a longstanding anomaly within city limits; after an annexation boom at the turn of the last century, Seattle mostly stopped expanding, and has not added any new land to its boundaries since 1986.
Tukwila has expressed interest in annexing the Triangle, which includes the headquarters of the luxury yacht company Delta Marine, but not the Sliver, due to the significant cost of providing sewer, fire, and police service to the people who live there.
For a similar reason, Seattle only wants to annex the Sliver if it also gets the Triangle and the business tax revenues that go along with. Complicating matters further is the fact that the South Park Bridge bisects the Sliver, and if Seattle takes it over, it will also be responsible for tending and maintaining that structure.
Add to this complicated mix a group of taxpayers who aren’t convinced that joining the city will be in their best economic interest, and you begin to see why the fate of the sliver has been debated since at least the 1970s.
Harris, who got involved in the annexation debate back in 1978, counts himself among the skeptics. “I don’t look forward to being part of the city of Seattle,” Harris says. “Their whole mentality is that they need to take more money out of an area than they put in, so that does not bode well for sidewalks or sewers.” Currently, the Sliver has no sewer service and is served by the North Highline Fire District, not the City of Seattle.
Harris says as a member of the Rental Housing Association and a longtime landlord, “I’ve been taking care of my houses and my tenants for 30 years, and I don’t need the city telling me how to do it.” He anticipates a giant regulatory headache if Seattle annexes his houses, which are around 100 years old and have the outdated wiring common to houses of that era.
Harris says if and when annexation does come to a vote, “I will make sure [my tenants] are all registered and I will encourage them” to vote against annexation. In August of last year, at a meeting of the Washington boundary review board for King County, Harris testified against the annexation, arguing (according to the minutes) that residents’ taxes would increase and it would become harder for homeowners to improve their properties. In addition, according to two people who were there, Harris testified that he would instruct his residents that if they voted for annexation and it passed, he would have to raise their rents around $100.
“I don’t look forward to being part of the city of Seattle. … “I will make sure [my tenants] are all registered and I will encourage them” to vote against annexation.” – South Park landlord George Harris
“Basically, what he said was that if the community joined Seattle, the taxes would be higher–which is actually not necessarily the truth–and the costs for permits would be higher; therefore, he couldn’t keep his rents low to help out his tenants,” boundary review board executive secretary Lenora Blauman recalls. Dagmar Cronn, a longtime resident of the sliver and an annexation supporter who was also at the meeting, says Harris “told us a couple of times during the evening that he had told his renters that if it passed, he was going to raise the rent $100 a month–he said it several times throughout that evening.”
Cronn, who, like Harris, has lived in South Park for decades and is past president of the South Park Neighborhood Association, says her husband, Bob, had to spend weeks convincing a county electrical inspector that the property he wanted to upgrade was in the county’s jurisdiction, not the city’s. “It’s an odd little sliver of land, and a lot of the county maps are just wrong,” Cronn says. The boundary confusion has had more serious consequences for Cronn and her husband; in 2011, they had to wait 33 minutes for an ambulance to arrive during a medical emergency, even though there’s a Seattle Fire Department station just five blocks from their house.
Kenny Pittman, a senior advisor at the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations and the city’s point person on South Park annexations, says residents of the Sliver “look across the street and see the City of Seattle fire department, and they can’t get service from them. The City of Seattle police department is right there too.”
Pittman has showed Cronn and Harris spreadsheets detailing how and why their taxes will go down, not up, if they join the city. “It drops a couple hundred dollars for a $240,000 home”–the median in South Park–because city residents don’t have to pay taxes for the North Highline Fire District, the King County library levy, or the King County Road District,” Pittman says.
Cronn believes Pittman; Harris does not. In fact, he calls Pittman’s tax claim “absolute baloney” and “propaganda,” adding, “the City of Seattle’s policy is to take more money out of any annexed area than they put into it. That’s just all there is to it.” He also objects to the city’s rental housing inspection program, its “ban the box” efforts to end housing discrimination against felons, and the general “mentality that, by nature, I am at war with my tenants, when nothing could be further from the truth.”
Pittman says he’s “feeling good about” completing all the necessary reviews for an annexation measure in time for a November election, or, failing that, an election early next year. Campaigning in such a small district is likely to be fierce, with annexation opponents like Harris arguing that joining Seattle will mean more taxes and unnecessary regulations, and proponents like Cronn making the case that this part of South Park deserves the same services and identity the rest of the neighborhood enjoys.