Slumber Party Poopers

Thanks to peculiar guest policies, residents of a low-income apartment building have to plan their liaisons well in advance.

A fairly exotic proposition for most of us, the late-night booty call is generally marked by spontaneity, and probably taken for granted as a recurring fact of life—or at least a rite of passage in the blur of twenty- and thirtysomething relational experiments.

That is, unless you happen to live in the Downtowner Apartments.

The management at the HUD-subsidized, 240-unit apartment tower, located blocks from Union Station on the periphery of the International District, prohibits tenants from letting their guests stay later than 10 p.m. If you want to have someone spend the night, you need to sign them in by 4 p.m. Thinking of having an out-of-town guest stay the weekend? Better get her signed in by Friday, or she's off to a hotel.

Consider the fate of a thirtysomething couple who began dating a few weeks ago (we'll call them Kathy and Jim): It was Grammy night, and Kathy had invited her new friend Jim over to her Downtowner studio to watch the show over a home-cooked dinner and a bottle of wine. Two hours into the Grammys, the couple realized that their time was up (i.e., it was 10 p.m.), and they hadn't even seen Christina Aguilera perform. But worse, Jim had consumed a little too much wine and wasn't in any condition to drive home to Greenwood. He pleaded his case to the guy at the security desk, where he had dropped off his ID to gain entry. To no avail. He was booted out.

Bellevue-based developer Martin Seelig (no relation to Seattle real-estate mogul Martin Selig), who owns the Downtowner with several silent partners, says overnight visits are an unfortunate casualty of his efforts to ensure the well-being of his tenants, as well as of his federal Housing and Urban Development subsidy.

"We're being supervised by HUD, and HUD establishes policies on people who are residents and who are not residents," says Seelig, who has co-owned the building since it was converted from a hotel to low-income apartments in 1971. "We don't have any morality issues. We have to make certain that the people who live in the building are eligible residents."

However, HUD doesn't require the Downtowner, where the maximum tenant income is $36,000, to maintain its stringent overnight policy, says Pam Negri, HUD spokesperson for the Pacific Northwest region. But, she adds, such a policy "really does protect residents."

By comparison, Jefferson Terrace, one of Seattle Housing Authority's low-income buildings, checks IDs only at night and doesn't require prior approval for overnight stays.

"We don't require people to register. We don't require people to identify their guests," says SHA spokesperson Virginia Selton. "[Such policies] tend to be more common in ... transitional housing."

Because of its location in what Seelig considers to be a high-crime area, the Downtowner struggles to keep out vagrants, drug dealers, and prostitutes, says the developer. In the lobby of the building a couple of weeks ago, a white-haired man in a ball cap who identified himself as a security managerangrily swung his cane at this reporter when asked about the security policy. His lower lip quivering, the man said the policy had been in place for 20 years and didn't need changing. If you were to run checks on the visitors who leave their IDs at the desk, he said, they'd have criminal records "a mile long."

But building manager Bobby Casebeer says they're not trying to keep out criminals—they're trying to placate HUD. "It's not crime at all," he acknowledges. Both Casebeer and Seelig say the policy is to safeguard against their concern that tenants will harbor nontenants full time, something that HUD frowns upon.

In fact, Casebeer says he isn't aware of any criminal history among the residents, although he refers to those on publicassistance (about one-third of the building, he estimates) as "welfare bums"—ironic, considering his employer's acceptance of HUD subsidies. As for the rest, he says about 25 percent have jobs, while the others are elderly or retired.

Cops aren't too worried about crime at the Downtowner, either. Seattle Police Department spokesperson Debra Brown says: "It's really not on the radar for the most part." But Kathy, the tenant who couldn't let her male friend stay over on Grammy night, generally doesn't mind the restrictions. During her year of residence, Kathy says someone tried to grab her as she entered her apartment, and on another occasion, she had to report an attempted break-in that occurred while she was home. She doesn't know the identities of the perpetrators, so she can't say if they were visitors or fellow residents.

"I think it's a little bit weird [and] awkward," says Kathy, "but still I appreciate the management [spending] money to hire security 24/7."

While it would seem like management could ensure safety just by holding IDs, without requiring advance notice of overnight stays, Kathy says some guests shouldn't be encouraged to spend the night.

"Some dangerous tenants [fight in] the hallway in the middle of the night," Kathy says. "So the regulations work if nobody comes in after like 10 or 12." Besides, getting a downtown studio that includes utilities and parking for $412 is "a good deal," she says.

But not all Downtowner tenants agree that cheap rent justifies rules that seem more suited to a Victorian-era convent. Dale Pusey, 27, who has lived at the Downtowner for three months, says that while security keeps the building "quiet," it did put a damper on things when he wanted to bring home a woman he had met at a club.

"She couldn't come over because it was too late," he recalls. "That was kind of a downer."

Heather Heath, 25, doesn't like the rules, either. "I can't have my sister stay here while I'm gone when she stays in Seattle because I have to be in my apartment," she says. That's another rule: no guests allowed in the tenant's apartment if the tenant isn't home. And the guest has to stay in the apartment belonging to the tenant he or she comes with.

"Those policies are awful," says Michele Thomas, a community organizer for the Tenants Union of Washington State. "People have the freedom of association, and even if they're low income and living in a low-income building, they shouldn't be treated like that. That's treating them like children."

State landlord-tenant law doesn't directly address guest policies, but attorney Eric Dunn of the Northwest Justice Project, a not-for-profit that offers free legal services for low-income people, says the greater the government involvement in a property, the less likely that guest restrictions would hold up.

Dunn has vindicated, in administrative proceedings, Seattle public-housing tenants who faced eviction for violating guest policies, but that's not the same as overturning the policy itself. Dunn says that while Washington appellate courts have upheld "reasonable" guest policies, the Downtowner policy is "pretty draconian ... especially because it applies to people who don't have a history of doing anything wrong at all."

Constitutional theory—specifically, the right of free association as cited by the Tenants Union—would be the most viable argument against the policy, he says, followed by a tenant's right of quiet enjoyment, acommon-law right that prohibits landlords from interfering with a tenant's basic use of the property. The law applies differently to hospitals, hotels, and treatment facilities, where restrictive guest policies have more relevance to an establishment's mission, he adds.

"If I was a sitting appellate judge," Dunn says, "I'd throw [the Downtowner's policy] out in a second."

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