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Parenting in poverty on Capitol Hill

With cost of living on the rise, barriers are high for parents like me

Summit House Apartments.
| Courtesy of Elizabeth Brico

At the Summit House Apartments, I never wanted to wake up. Not that I was ever fully asleep—between my lumpy bed that sank in the middle, the mice banging around the heating vents, the winter cold seeping through the thin windows, and the inevitable yelling drunkards outside, falling and staying asleep was a labor.

I liked staying up in the dark, when I couldn’t really see where I was. When I could pretend that if someone broke in—which would be easy—I could do something about it. Morning was different. If I didn’t have my kids, I probably wouldn’t get out of bed. The dimness and the bugs and incorrigible feel of filth, there whether or not we’d cleaned the place, was enough to keep me wrapped in blankets, eyes shuttered to the world around me. Often, after the kids went to daycare, I found myself returning to bed. It was easier to sleep in the daytime, when staying awake meant seeing the weird wall and carpet stains we inherited when we moved in, which felt like an ever-present proof of my failure as a parent and a human.

Seattle has the reputation of being a hip, slightly pretentious, and extremely wealthy city teeming with entitled tech bros and kids raking in $15 an hour to flip burgers. With an average median income of more than $80,000 yearly, and a poverty rate at least two points below the national average, the stereotype is not far off. Seattle is also the second most literate city in the country, topped only by the nation’s capital. It’s a city on the rise, literally; walk through almost any neighborhood and you’re bound to see a luxury residential high-rise or another expansive complex in construction.

Capitol Hill and downtown are especially pricey. Once the hub of queer and punk Seattle, the Hill is quickly shifting into a trendy hotspot where the new tech transplants eat lunch and party before turning into their expensive downtown abodes.

What people outside of the city don’t consider is that the cost of living often makes the new $15 minimum wage feel just as paltry as $7 an hour in another part of the country, or that people who rely on government benefits, calculated based on standards set at the federal or state level, have an incredibly hard time living here. As someone living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) severe enough to impair my ability to maintain standard employment, I was against the minimum wage hike for exactly that reason—or at least a minimum wage hike without some way to also curb the rates of rent and food inflation.

But rent control is outlawed in Washington State, and even the cost of bread is among the highest in the country. In addition, a quiet circle of landlords have been working, since at least the late 1990s, against laws and politicians that could make it easier to catch housing code violations and compensate tenants. Included in that group is Douglas Neyhart, the proprietor of the building where I’d been living up until the end of February.

Seattle, and more specifically Capitol Hill, is my home. I was born at Swedish Hospital on Broadway, and raised on 13th Avenue and East Howell Street. When my husband and I toured the Summit House Apartments, which is located smack-dab between the Hill and downtown, it felt like a way to return to a home I didn’t want to admit I’d been priced out of.

At the time, we were living out of a motel on Aurora. I was seven months pregnant, and waiting on test results that would reveal whether or not I had gestational diabetes. (I had already failed the first test.) The motel had no kitchen or cooking equipment beyond a microwave and mini-fridge, so it was difficult to maintain the diet my doctor had prescribed. The stench of cigarettes was so deeply embedded into the walls and furniture that I constantly reeked even though neither of us smoked. A few days before we viewed the Summit House Apartments, the block around our motel was swarming with cops who were busting a prostitution ring in the next motel over. We were desperate to find permanent housing.

Under different circumstances, we probably would have been put off by the dingy gray building with its creaking glass elevator and metal gate crowned by loops of barbed wire. I remember viewing the apartment and thinking it was kind of dirty, but assuring myself, naively, that it would be cleaned by the time we moved in. After all, they were charging us a cleaning deposit. As we left, my husband and I joked that the building looked like the set of a horror film. But it was on the Hill, they didn’t charge last month’s rent or a security deposit, and the rent was less than half what other similar units cost in the area. At the time, it seemed like a dream come true. It would not take long for our dream to transform into a nightmare.

Capitol Hill is notably younger, whiter, and more population-dense than the rest of Seattle, and the majority of residents make $60,000 per year or more. It also houses almost 10 percent fewer family households than the rest of the city. More than half its residents moved from a state other than Washington. Disabled, married with two kids, Latin-American, and on food stamps, I no longer fit into my home. But I really, really wanted to.

At first, things seemed to be working. My husband landed a job as a pantry cook at a nearby restaurant. We discovered our local Buy Nothing Group on Facebook, and through there managed to comfortably furnish our apartment. I gave birth to my daughter at Swedish Hospital in same wing where I was born almost 30 years earlier. When the sun was out, I walked my daughters to the nearby playground or the soccer field at Cal Anderson Park. The building had cockroaches, which the manager had not disclosed before we signed our month-to-month lease, but having recently moved from a year-long stint in Florida, where the roaches had wings and sometimes spanned the length of my hand, the tiny brown Pacific Northwest species seemed relatively bearable.

We experienced the first major problem a few months after we moved in. We decided to switch into a two-bedroom on the first floor that only cost $300 more than we were paying for the second floor one-bedroom. The creaky elevator jammed frequently enough that being able to avoid riding it seemed like a blessing—not to mention it had no sensor and was too heavy for my toddler to push it open, making it a constant source of anxiety. Plus, two bedrooms meant my husband and I no longer had to camp out in the living room. Management charged us a second cleaning deposit, but it was worth the cost if it meant they were going to clean the unit before we moved in. (If any cleaning took place, we saw no evidence of it.)

The ground floor of Summit House Apartments.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Brico

It did not take us long to realize that unit 101 had a far worse cockroach infestation than our previous apartment. At night, after our daughters went to bed, I could hear something scurrying in the cabinets. The next time I reached for my flour, it spilled out of a hole chewed through by mice in the night. Thus began my habit of moving my baking products from cabinet to cabinet and double-wrapping it in plastic bags, not so easy to find in a city that banned them from grocery stores. The bathroom and hallway reeked of urine. My husband and I were horrified when we noticed streaks of dried yellowish liquid on the bathroom and hallway walls.

Of course, we scrubbed the walls, set traps for the rodents and roaches, and rented a carpet shampooer, but it was never enough. The carpets remained a dingy grayish color, despite sucking up enough filth to blacken two full loads of water on two separate occasions. The mice continued to run into our apartment from the neighboring unit, like clockwork, at midnight every night. Even when we managed to keep our unit free from roaches, we could see them scurrying through the shared spaces, or pasted onto the windows of other apartments. It seemed futile to ask for a professional exterminator, since we knew the building policy was to only send them to a handful of units each month, which only pushed the infestation from unit to unit. When we finally did submit a request, it was almost two months before it was honored.

Elizabeth Brico with her two children.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Brico

Shortly after we moved into the new unit, the manager delivered a utility bill for our previous apartment, alongside a utility shut-off notice for the apartment we’d just begun to occupy. The previous unit’s bill was enormous—it covered our entire tenancy and then some—and the bill for our current unit belonged to the previous tenants. They had failed to deliver our bill in a timely manner, or apparently that of the previous tenants, and now expected us to foot both immediately, which, of course, we could not do. It took numerous calls to both our landlord and Seattle City Light before we were able to stop the utility shut-off.

It was just the first time we encountered this form of billing negligence. The next time the manager delivered an enormous, overdue utility bill that we were seeing for the very first time, it came scrawled with a note instructing, “if they can’t pay, get rid of them.”

Seattle has low-income housing programs like Housing Choice Vouchers and organizations like Capitol Hill Housing, but they tend to have waitlists that can span years. When we first returned to Seattle, Seattle Housing Authority was hosting a lottery for voucher waitlist spaces. Even if we made the list, we were told, we would likely wait years before securing affordable housing—a moot point because, despite having two children, we did not make the waitlist. So we remained in unit 101 of the Summit House Apartments, enjoying the easy walk to the park and grocery store, but scrambling each month to pay the rent while remaining constantly vigilant against pests and a crushing sense of failure. Finally, this February, after my husband suffered a health crisis that left him unable to work for three months, we accepted his family’s invitation to return to Florida.

As I write this from Florida, there is more light in my room than I ever saw while on the dim ground floor of the Summit House Apartments. The carpet is clean. There’s not a bug in sight. Even better, I am free of the debilitating financial anxiety that consumed me for years while in Seattle. I miss my home, the city where I grew up and hoped to raise my kids as well. I miss the liberalism and educational opportunities and lush greenery that still encroaches on the city. I know come summer I will miss blackberry picking and swimming in cool, dark lakes under the shade of oak and pine.

But I also know that Seattle, and especially Capitol Hill, is no longer a place that welcomes families like mine.