Something's Rotten in Roosevelt

City Attorney Sidran vows to stop years of intimidation and lawbreaking by problem landlords in North Seattle.

The Roosevelt neighborhood is beginning to rot. Neighborhood activists blame poor enforcement of city land use laws and the negligence of three men who control a substantial amount of land in the area. The Seattle neighborhood north of the University of Washington, known for its well-manicured bungalows and quaint businesses, is also home to entire blocks of rundown houses including some with cracked windows, broken steps, and garbage heaps. Anyone who walks past the intersection of NE 65th Street and 15th Avenue NE will see all the signs of a neighborhood in decay.

Welcome to the small empire of Hugh and Drake Sisley, brothers who own 54 rental homes in the Roosevelt area worth around $14 million. Since 1990, the brothers have racked up 80 citations for violating land use codes. Some of their homes, crumbling structures that surround Roosevelt High School on two sides, are overseen by Keith Gilbert, a former member of the Aryan Nations with a penchant for lawsuits and a history of assault.

Gilbert and Hugh Sisley are in hot water right now over a property, 6525 15th Ave NE, where one of their houses burned down a couple of years ago. Seattle's Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU) says Gilbert and Sisley have been using the property as an illegal dump for everything from bags of rotting food to trashed appliances.

Gilbert, who speaks for the Sisleys, says neither he nor his tenants were responsible for the mess; he blames the high school for creating most of the garbage. The DCLU says dozens of problems exist on many of the other Sisley properties, from crumbling porches to rusted cars. "It's too much," says Will Hairston, the DCLU's enforcement chief.

For years the Sisleys and Gilbert have been cited for failing to maintain their properties, and accused of locking tenants out of their homes, but the city has had little success getting them to obey the law. (See "Seattle's Worst Landlords," SW, 5/28/98.) Now the community is pressuring city officials to get tough on the garbage and the negligence.

More than 100 residents came out a couple of weeks ago for a meeting between the community and city officials, including City Attorney Mark Sidran, City Council member Nick Licata, and Hairston. Most in the crowd were furious about the Sisleys' refusal to help keep up the neighborhood. "I feel like I'm watching a neighborhood crumble," said David Ahrens. Another angry resident added, "These are transient places. People are moving in and out. I think you need to get more aggressive with them."

While the focus of the meeting stayed on the Sisleys and the city's failure to bring them in line, tenants defended their landlords. One young man, clutching a large skateboard, asserted that it's unfair for the community to expect the brothers to maintain houses that are "like, a hundred years old." Three other tenants suggested that the whole neighborhood make a collective effort to clean up the mess.

The DCLU's Hairston, who was only hired for his current position a few weeks ago, sided with the angry community, agreeing that the city's policy toward the Sisleys needs to change. He claims that now, with cooperation from the police force and the health department, the DCLU will crack down on the problems in Roosevelt.

In case after case, a bureaucratic system has hampered the DCLU's efforts to cite the Sisleys and Gilbert for violations such as failing to provide adequate garbage bins or littering their properties with abandoned cars.

Forcing a landlord to follow the law can take months. Supposedly, a landlord has 30 days after a violation has been issued to comply so long as he doesn't appeal. But if he fixes part of the problem, the DCLU assumes he's working on it and gives him more time.

"Our code is designed to work with people who are cooperative," says City Attorney Sidran. "It's not designed to work with people who are not inclined to solve a problem." Ultimately, fines are levied on recalcitrant lawbreakers, but if that doesn't work the DCLU asks the city attorney's office to file a lawsuit, and then things drag out for months and months. Sidran's office admits it doesn't make such suits a priority.

After a recent morning stroll through Roosevelt, Sidran has become convinced that Gilbert and the Sisleys are in a class by themselves. He says he'll push to pass a new law to force problem property owners to behave. Sidran advocates issuing citations, similar to traffic tickets, for landlords and other property owners who violate land use law. He believes the cost of the tickets will deter would-be code breakers. Repeat offenders would get stiffer penalties, possibly including seizure of their property, Sidran hinted.

So far, though, it's the city's power to enforce the law that's been seized up. Gilbert has a habit of bringing what some judges have called "frivolous lawsuits" against people he feels threaten his interests. He brought two of the cases in federal court. In both he filed as a pauper in order to avoid paying court fees.

In a 1992 lawsuit, he accused the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association of racketeering. He was upset that RNA members had talked of asking the city to downzone some Sisley properties. He sued each RNA officer for $15 million on the grounds they'd conspired against him by planning to lower the property values of land he might want to buy. According to RNA member Pat Stroshal, the organization spent between $20,000 and $30,000 to get the case dismissed.

In 1994, after the DCLU took action on a number of violations at Sisley properties, including the illegal conversion of a house that was zoned single-family into a six-unit "residents' club" house, Gilbert brought a similar suit against city officials. While that suit was also dismissed, it provides insight into the kind of intimidation Gilbert has used against DCLU inspectors.

After the DCLU's Amy Swackert issued a violation, Gilbert called her at home on a weekend to tell her to stay off his property. She told him to wait and call her at the office during the week. Instead, he located her father's house and went there to serve her with the lawsuit, even though she didn't live there.

Another DCLU inspector, Clay Thompson, asserted in court documents that experience had taught him to take a police escort when he went to inspect Gilbert-run properties.

Gilbert admits that he is "short-tempered" and that he's ordered Thompson off his property. But on the whole he claims to be a well-meaning guy, calling himself a "radical social activist" who provides low-income housing for marginalized people through his nonprofit organization, ACME Residents' Club. He describes Hugh Sisley, who "leases" the houses for the club, as "one of the finest people I have ever known."

But there's another side to Gilbert that he won't talk about—his history of violent racist extremism. He formed an Aryan Nations splinter group called the "Social Nationalist Aryan People's Party," according to a 1988 Anti-Defamation League publication Extremism on the Right. In 1985, he was convicted in Idaho of violating the Federal Fair Housing Act, including threatening black children. According to court papers, he sicced his Saint Bernard, named "Nigger Eater," on one little girl and "drove his car at" a little boy.

Extremism on the Right also asserts: Gilbert served a five-year prison term for plotting to blow up a B'nai B'rith dinner honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and that police found 1,400 pounds of dynamite in his possession.

Gilbert denies all the charges emphatically. He does, however, admit to doing time in San Quentin for assault with a deadly weapon. Gilbert says he has never been a racist or an anti-Semite. His own daughter-in-law is Jewish, he says, though that couldn't be independently verified.

He's also adamant that he respects city government and is willing to cooperate with its agencies so long as it's on his terms. "If I think it's a valid complaint, I'll fix it," he says of the violations. He especially emphasized that he likes Mark Sidran.

Gilbert has made it clear he suspects any change in the land use code will be made solely to punish him and the Sisleys. City officials say there are some other areas of town that need to be cleaned up, though the particulars are different for each case. In the meantime, Sidran is looking forward to passing some kind of legislation that will make it harder for landowners to thumb their noses at the DCLU. Before that happens it looks like Gilbert and the Sisleys have a lot of work to do on their homes. Otherwise, they'll be spending a lot of time in court, and not for the purpose of bringing lawsuits.

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