It’s July 25, a muggy Friday afternoon. A man in a red shirt stands behind a folding table in the corner of a parking garage underneath an anonymous, glass, cubic, office building in Bellevue. He holds up two fingers — $2,000? Three fingers — $3,000? It’s impossible to tell. It could be $3,000, or $3,000 above the base bid, or something else entirely.
His lips are moving, and he’s talking loudly and quickly, but from 2 feet away, the three or four people who’ve come to hear him can’t hear a word he’s saying.
That’s because, in this difficult-to-find, “public” auction of foreclosed Seattle homes, a couple dozen protesters — with voices, tambourines and noisemakers echoing off the parking garage walls — surround the auctioneer, leaning in and making the auction impossible.
And since state law requires that such auctions be held in a public place, the parking garage area that Northwest Auction Services had roped off was, indeed, public, no matter how difficult it was to find. Police could only stand by and watch as the auction — already postponed once from the morning — descend again into chaos.
‘A well-oiled machine’
This is how foreclosed Seattle homes are auctioned: in an underground parking garage setting more befitting drug deals. Northwest Trustee Services (NTS), which operates in eight Western states, handles 60 to 70 percent of all foreclosed homes in King County. Six years after the housing bubble burst, NTS still auctions 50 to 70 homes a month from Seattle alone.
Its building also houses Routh Crabtree Olsen, a legal firm that operates in the same eight states and represents both NTS and the banks that have seized the homes NTS auctions.
It’s a cozy, well-oiled machine for processing properties that, protesters allege, often have the same history of predatory practices and dubious paper trails that led to the 2008 bubble in the first place.
The group that led the Bellevue auction protest, SAFE (Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction), also had made headlines a week earlier for preventing the eviction of a disabled veteran and his wife from their West Seattle home.
On July 18, King County sheriff’s deputies arrived to evict Byron and Jean Barton, even though their notice was still being appealed. After deputies strapped wheelchair-bound Byron into an ambulance gurney for transport to a nursing home, activists laid under the ambulance to prevent its leaving, and deputies backed off.
Five days of protests later, Mayor Ed Murray instructed Seattle Police (which had taken over the law-enforcement operation) not to enforce the order, and so the Bartons are still in their home, awaiting results of their appeal.
SAFE board president Jeremy Griffin became an activist when his own South Seattle home was foreclosed on in 2010. Griffin says the scores of foreclosures in Seattle each month are concentrated heavily in South Seattle neighborhoods — Georgetown, Seward Park, South Park — but that the number north of the Ship Canal is increasing as more homeowners overcome what Griffin calls the “shame barrier” and try to fight their banks, rather than settling in disputes for which they may not be at fault at all.
Dana Ventura was arrested in May, trying to block the demolition of her South Seattle home after it was foreclosed on and sold to a condo developer by Chase Bank, which had bought the mortgage from the defunct Washington Mutual, which had bought it from US Bank.
Ventura says she was never underwater; she tried to renegotiate her mortgage after health problems caused her to fall behind, but Chase told her she would need to miss three payments first. She followed their instructions, she says, and rather than negotiate, Chase foreclosed and sold the property instead.
Development pressure is so great now in so many different Seattle neighborhoods that there is an enormous financial incentive for mortgage holders to find ways to force homeowners out of homes that sit on land that would be far more valuable if redeveloped.
In the feeding frenzy that is now the Seattle housing and rental market, foreclosed properties have gone in recent years from being sold for pennies on the dollar to, in good locations, attracting spirited bidding that can approach and even exceed the assessed value. Buyers bid up such properties based on development potential, not the houses currently sitting there.
Seventeen homes were listed for auction in the July 25 parking garage fiasco — fewer than usual, protesters said, because the auction service rescheduled much of the list, anticipating the demonstration — more than half had base bids of more than $200,000; one listed for $990,000. They were all rescheduled for auction.
And so, quietly, banks, developers and middlemen — like NTS and their attorneys — make more money while Seattle residents struggle to find affordable homes.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.