SEATTLE -- The house was always going to need a little work.
An unpermitted second bedroom extending into the back alleyway "bounced" when entered, said Erika Cherry, who bought the 650-square-foot Seattle home with her husband, Andre, in late 2018. When the Cherrys demolished a wall, they found newspapers from 1916 -- the year the house was built -- in place of insulation. Six-foot-tall Andre could touch the low ceilings when he reached up.
But the Cherrys loved the Highland Park neighborhood, where they'd been renting since 2014. And at $325,000, the house was a steal.
They filed what Erika Cherry thought were relatively modest plans to renovate the home with the city's Department of Construction and Inspections in early 2019. They'd bring the addition up to code, enclose the front porch and raise the roof to make the attic livable, on a budget of less than $60,000.
"We were turning a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house into a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house," said architect Greg Krueger.
The city didn't see it that way. A reviewer said the renovation was substantial enough to qualify as new construction. According to rules passed in 2019, the Cherrys would need to pay $11,000 to the city's low-income housing fund if they wanted their permit, in addition to the regular permitting fees. That's more than the Cherrys -- already spending $4,200 per month on rent and mortgage while permitting drags on -- were willing to pay.
The proposed renovations doubled the square footage and left "very little" of the existing home, department spokesperson Bryan Stevens said in an email. "We have not yet issued the permit and are open to reconsidering if the owners have new information they can provide demonstrating that more of the existing home will be preserved," Stevens wrote.
The Cherrys say they shouldn't be penalized for increasing the value of their home, in part by bringing it up to code. The issue is one of equity for the city's Black residents, Erika Cherry said, who have been displaced from historically Black neighborhoods in part due to upzoning that made the properties more attractive to developers.
The Cherrys have demanded the city grant the permit. If the city refuses, Erika Cherry said, they plan to sue.
The scenario reflects much of the debate over the city's 2019 Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which upzoned 27 neighborhood hubs -- including Highland Park -- with the requirement that new housing there either include low-income apartments in their buildings or be assessed a fee. The premise of that plan was that more density would mean more affordability. Residents displaced from neighborhoods like the Central District because of rising rents and property taxes would be able to return to new, less-expensive apartments, proponents promised.