City water utility as landlord?

By Wendy Giroux

The city's Water Utility is about to get into the house rental business -- sort of.

City Council members voted 4-3 last week to spend $50,000 to renovate a First Hill home on city-owned property at 2976 74th Ave. S.E. to bring it up to code so that it can continue to be rented out. Councilmen Dan Grausz, Sven Goldmanis and Bryan Cairns voted ``No.''

Until last spring, Youth and Family Services used the 2,200-square-foot home for subsidized housing, but department officials decided to end the service because of liability concerns.

The Water Utility purchased the 0.7-acre First Hill property decades ago with the intention that one day it could be used as a site to store water needed for emergencies.

Maintenance Department staff are currently studying the feasibility of placing an underground water storage tank at three sites, including the First Hill site. Storage tanks are necessary in case of an emergency, such as if the East Channel Bridge went out. In addition to the First Hill land, the city Water Utility owns a 2.8-acre piece of land off 86th Avenue S.E., often called ``Tract A,'' a few blocks south of the Mercer Island Country Club.

Members of the city's Utility Board recommended that the council spend the money to bring the 1953 home up to code with the idea of renting it to a city employee who would do some care-taking in return for a reduced rent.

The point of the arrangement is to get a staff member with expertise in the water system to live in the home so that he or she can respond quickly to emergencies, said Glenn Boettcher, Maintenance director.

The idea hearkens back to the 1980s, when a water utility supervisor lived in the home and was available in emergencies. The department now uses a call-out process, where employees take weekly turns with a pager. Response times to recent water system problems have been getting longer, since none of the department employees live on the Island, Boettcher said.

``The most serious sorts of things that occur are a slide in the middle of the night or something that happens with the Seattle Public Water supply,'' he said.

Total repairs to make the house comply with codes are estimated at $60,000; $10,000 is budgeted already for upkeep and repairs. The council's vote last week approved appropriating the remaining $50,000 from unallocated money in the water fund. A local realtor told city staff members that the house, once repaired, would rent for $2,400-$2,600.

Other options presented to the council were demolition, estimated at $10,000, or locking the house and leaving it vacant, for a minimal cost.

Councilman El Jahncke, who is the council liaison to the Utility Board, moved to approve the proposal to renovate and rent the property. Councilman Steve Litzow seconded his motion.

``It keeps our future options open, in terms of maybe not a water tower, but a well up there,'' Jahncke said.

Several council members supported demolishing the house and surplusing the land.

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