Kelly Brookbank, a former resident of Whispering Pines, performs a pre-drive check on a school bus in Seattle. She said staff at the apartment complex became less responsive to tenants’ maintenance requests and increasingly hostile as a moving deadline approached. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kelly Brookbank, a former resident of Whispering Pines, performs a pre-drive check on a school bus in Seattle. She said staff at the apartment complex became less responsive to tenants’ maintenance requests and increasingly hostile as a moving deadline approached. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Authorities did little to help displaced low-income tenants

The end was chaotic and confusing for tenants of the Whispering Pines complex in Lynnwood. Volunteers tried to help.

LYNNWOOD — Darlarae Osborn didn’t know what she needed when she approached the Lynnwood City Council in 2018.

She just knew she needed help. Her neighbors needed help, too.

Osborn, 59, had just learned Whispering Pines, one of the city’s last affordable apartment complexes, was closing in three years. Sewer pipes were failing. The fire alarm system wasn’t up to code. Older adults, people with disabilities and families struggling to make ends meet had to move. But the city didn’t have a program to relocate 240 low-income households.

It was a major crisis.

The tenants’ social safety net became a City Council member, a member of the city’s Human Services Commission and a handful of volunteers. They helped people move, search for new housing and find rental assistance. They staved off the worst effects of closing the complex, which was torn down this month at 18225 52nd Ave. W.

But as for the government agencies designed to support low-income tenants? It proved surprisingly difficult for people to access their services.

The Housing Authority of Snohomish County, which owns the Whispering Pines property, said it wouldn’t pay to relocate tenants. It also discouraged volunteers from helping. Volunteers were confusing the tenants, the executive director of the housing authority, Duane Leonard, said in an interview with The Daily Herald.

No one knows how many of the 240 households found permanent housing. Interviews with nonprofits, volunteers and tenants revealed there was no overarching effort by the county to keep track of people after they moved out.

Whispering Pines Apartments complex in Lynnwood. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Whispering Pines Apartments complex in Lynnwood. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Families who, until then, had stable housing were left to figure out how to survive in a region where rent has become increasingly unaffordable.

“I’m not a public speaker, but I do have a voice,” Osborn said. “… I sat there the whole time telling myself, ‘You can do this.’”

‘Paralyzed from stress’

The way Osborn tells it, only two people seemed to understand her situation at the Lynnwood City Council meeting in 2018: George Hurst is on the council, and his wife, Pam Hurst, is a member of the city’s Human Services Commission.

In contrast, Osborn recalled another councilmember who suggested she contact a nonprofit that gives free haircuts and hot meals on weekends.

“I looked at her and didn’t even know what to say,” Osborn said. “I’m not homeless.”

The Hursts took a different approach. They spent three years talking to housing authority board members, speaking at City Council meetings and contacting nonprofits.

Osborn and the Hursts surveyed tenants in 2018 about the help they needed. Answers were almost unanimous. Renters needed someone to help them pack, money for movers and a truck, and help finding other housing they could afford.

The city didn’t have a program for all of that. In October 2019, George Hurst suggested an ordinance to give each household $2,000, funded through a city tax and the housing authority. It didn’t get enough support from other council members.

George and Pam Hurst at their home on Dec. 6 in Lynnwood. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

George and Pam Hurst at their home on Dec. 6 in Lynnwood. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

It doesn’t appear the housing authority violated any laws when it displaced tenants. The housing authority has repeatedly noted it gave tenants three years notice, when it was only required to provide 60 days.

Cash from a federal relief package reached tenants the following summer, but it was for rent, not relocation. Departing households still needed help if the city wanted to avoid pushing hundreds of families into homelessness.

Galina Volchkova, senior director for Volunteers of America’s Housing Services, said relocating people is more complicated than just helping them qualify for financial assistance.

“Many families got paralyzed from stress and frustration,” Volchkova said.

Ben Young, of the Communities of Color Coalition, said people desperately needed case managers who understood the full picture of why they struggled to move.

Nonprofits helped many families, but they weren’t in charge of relocating people. Snohomish County contracted Volunteers of America to distribute federal aid to renters around the county. The nonprofit has since disbursed $65 million. The Communities of Color Coalition helped, and also handed out money for the city.

Neither was tasked with relocating Whispering Pines tenants, though. Volunteers of America offered. The housing authority declined.

Volchkova told The Herald in August that Volunteers of America had approved 148 Whispering Pines households for federal rental aid and was in the process of approving more.

On paper, Volunteers of America gave nearly $397,000 to Whispering Pines tenants, Volchkova said at the time. In reality, the money mostly went to the housing authority for tenants’ unpaid rent. Sometimes it went to a future landlord, too.

Meanwhile, the Hursts paid out of their own pockets to help some people move. They started fundraising with a religious nonprofit, Isaiah 58 House, and other churches in 2020.

Pam Hurst scheduled movers and a truck, relying on her connections as a real estate agent and the generosity of a friend to get a better rate. Osborn moved out with their help that fall. She worried about leaving her neighbors, though.

“When I moved, it was because Pam in a sense pushed me,” Osborn said. “She was like, ‘You’ve got to go. This is your opportunity.’”

Kelly Brookbank, a former resident of Whispering Pines, performs a pre-drive check on a school bus in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kelly Brookbank, a former resident of Whispering Pines, performs a pre-drive check on a school bus in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘Almost surreal’

Kelly Brookbank, another former tenant, said neighbors struggled to afford basic necessities like food. She still doesn’t understand why the property management company stopped her from helping them.

“It’s almost surreal how cruel it was,” Brookbank said.

Tenants told The Herald that staff from Allied Residential — the for-profit company that ran day-to-day operations at the property — only helped some residents, while they bullied and harassed others.

According to Brookbank, Allied Residential staff towed her neighbors’ cars for minor parking violations but let the same infractions slide if staff members liked the tenant. Ducks died in the pool and stayed there, smelling like death.

Brookbank didn’t complain at the time. She didn’t want a bad reference when she moved.

“Everybody was just absolutely terrified,” Brookbank said. “Let’s just take me for instance — I’ve been working as a bus driver for the last five years. I make good money when I work, but I had to move with no income because we weren’t working. So when someone from Allied said, ‘Jump,’ we said ‘How high?’”

After the pandemic forced Seattle schools to close, Brookbank delivered meals to students in the district. She was given food for families at Whispering Pines, too. Costco, Safeway and local bakeries joined the effort. Staples gave her school supplies. Seattle schools gave her old books and clothes.

“Whatever someone needed, if we didn’t have it, we could get it,” Brookbank said.

Allied staff appeared supportive for a while. They offered up a vacant apartment to store donations. Brookbank met Pam Hurst, who brought even more supplies.

Brookbank posted thank-you notes on Facebook and told everyone she knew about the impromptu food bank.

Allied staff abruptly shut down her operation in October 2020.

Kelly Brookbank, a former resident of Whispering Pines, performs a pre-drive check on a school bus in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kelly Brookbank, a former resident of Whispering Pines, performs a pre-drive check on a school bus in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“I don’t know what happened,” Brookbank said. “Everything was great, everything was tidy. People had to come in with a mask.”

Brookbank had a few hours’ notice about the closure. Staff told her she wasn’t allowed to distribute items — starting immediately. They took some of the best donations for themselves, she said, and put food they wanted in an office refrigerator. A maintenance worker took the rest.

“All the food, all the clothes, all the books, they took everything,” Brookbank said. “… I was out of my mind upset.”

‘Put it in the box’

The Hursts had a long list of people who needed help. Former tenants asked them to check on their disabled neighbors or people they knew were struggling.

Often the Hursts sent names to Volunteers of America. They sent names to the housing authority, too. They suspected Allied Residential was telling only some tenants about rental help.

In early May, Pam Hurst handed out fliers about how to apply for the money. Allied Residential staff were in the office but wouldn’t answer the door, she said.

Two female tenants came to the office, dropping off checks for June rent.

“They were ready to put it in the box and I said, ‘You don’t need to do that, because if you take this information and call 211 they will help you pay past rent,’” Pam Hurst said.

The next day, the housing authority director asked the Hursts to stay off the property.

Records obtained by The Herald show Allied Residential sent tenants bills for unpaid rent ranging from $6 to more than $8,300, though Leonard, the executive director of the housing authority, sent an email to the Lynnwood City Council claiming the agency forgave $100,000 in rental debt.

Records also reveal a housing authority case worker emailed tenants in August, because the tenants hadn’t given notice that they planned to move out. The case worker asked how she could help. One tenant couldn’t move into a new apartment until Sept. 4 and asked to stay at Whispering Pines for a few more days.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to be out of your current unit by the 31st,” the case worker wrote in the email. “If you are still here come 9/1, there is no guarantee that there will be power, water or working sewer lines AND it is also my understanding that anybody that is still present there on the 1st, will be facing physical eviction with the sheriff present.”

Housing authority spokesperson Pam Townsend wrote: “If there are any residents who did not receive a refund of their deposits, we would be happy to look into it and correct it if they would contact HASCO.”

‘Kind of a secret’

As of late November, the Volunteers of America was housing a few families in hotels. Around the same time, the Hursts ran into another former tenant at the grocery store. He was couch-surfing.

Snohomish County set aside $100,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act a few weeks before the complex closed.

This summer, the last 50 or so tenants were offered $2,000 each for moving expenses in exchange for a signature on a non-disclosure agreement. Legally, former tenants can’t talk about their experience with the housing authority or Whispering Pines, or else they may need to return the money.

It’s unclear if the cash prevented people from becoming homeless.

Brookbank and Osborn never signed agreements. The Hursts helped both move out before the housing authority offered the checks.

After Allied took the donations Brookbank collected, she found a temporary job in Montana. She still struggles with guilt over leaving her neighbors — not knowing where they’ve gone, or if they’re OK.

“I don’t think there was a day I didn’t weep openly,” Brookbank said. “I hope they don’t think I abandoned them.”

After a few months in Montana, she returned to Whispering Pines. Her neighbors’ children started asking her for snacks. So she filled her entertainment center with non-perishable food. Pam Hurst found a church willing to donate items and began bringing food every day.

“We had to keep it kind of a secret,” Brookbank said. “I don’t know how this happened. We were doing good.”

Brookbank moved out a few months before the deadline in May 2021. She now lives in Seattle, a little closer to work.

The housing, she said, was more affordable than in Lynnwood.

Katie Hayes: katie.hayes@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.

Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.

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