Updated Friday, December 21, 2012 at 01:56 PM
If it's possible to be saddled with an inheritance, then Clyde Yancey is the unluckiest man in Seattle.
Nearly 15 years after he inherited eight investment properties from his parents, Yancey is underwater.
He owes more than $23,000 in back property taxes and says he's behind on two mortgages.
Worse, he owes the city of Seattle a mind-boggling $1.76 million in judgments connected to health and safety violations at two properties, including a boarded-up Central District triplex that at one time was home to just about anyone willing to pry open the door or climb through a broken window.
The city attorney's office this month moved to auction off the triplex to satisfy a $13,000 judgment related to one of the 39 code-enforcement cases the city has on file against Yancey.
The move is the latest in the decadelong skirmish between the city and Yancey, and it underscores the city's determination to force him to clean up his properties, even as he vows to hold on to his houses and fix them up on his terms.
The city ranks Yancey right up there with Seattle's very worst slumlords, a characterization that makes Yancey bristle. His explanation: He's a decent landlord who fell behind on maintenance during a dark period in his life. In fact, he seems bewildered at how things got so out of hand.
To the city, Yancey is a neglectful property owner who is able, but unwilling, to clean up the houses he owns so that his neighbors can enjoy their neighborhood without dodging rats, chasing away squatters and drug dealers or walking past piles of garbage. It has spent about $165,000 investigating complaints against his properties and taking him to court, according to the city attorney's office.
"This is one of the more difficult situations where we just have ongoing complaints against these properties, and the owner has just failed to take care of it for years," said Alan Justad, deputy director for the city's Department of Planning and Development, which enforces Seattle's health and safety building codes. "It's the only action the enforcement staff here is aware of where we actually forced a sale as opposed to an abatement or something else."
To Yancey, the city is a capricious and heavy-handed overlord that would rather force a fire sale of his properties than give him more time to raise the money to fix them.
Yancey, 63, managed to stave off the auction by paying off the judgment a day before the property was to be auctioned off at an entrance to the King County Administration Building. But a spokeswoman for the city attorney's office said there are four more judgments against Yancey, and it intends to collect on every single one of them.
Trying to catch up
Yancey says he's trying to catch up with his responsibilities after several years of living under the yoke of a debilitating depression that left him "hanging on the edge of whether to eat a gun." The city's insistence on going after him for fines means he'll have less money to fix up the properties, he says.
It's a curious situation, one that Yancey could never have imagined in 1998, when he became a landlord almost overnight after his parents got into a terrible car accident in Snohomish County. His mother died on the operating table, he said; his dad lingered for 42 days in Harborview Medical Center before dying from his injuries.
Yancey said the experience was a searing one. The comings and going of the helicopter ambulance from Harborview's roof brought back memories of what he describes as his experiences serving in "the Southeast Asia campaign" during the Vietnam War. And the parade of sad stories attached to the patients who flowed into the intensive-care unit as he sat with his father began to overwhelm him.
"If you've ever been in a depression, you know what it's like. When you're hanging by a thread, there could be a million dollars hanging outside your door, and you can't get out of bed to get it, and you have no interest in getting it."
During that time, his properties fell further into disrepair. Garbage piled up. Things broke and went unfixed. He started, but never finished, remodeling his home. He didn't even bother to secure the doors.
He eventually started getting better on medication, he said, and made efforts to get back on track. By then, the city — responding to complaints from police and Yancey's neighbors — was on his case.
The city, which had investigated complaints against the triplex before Yancey inherited it, began issuing new notices of violations and emergency orders for some of his properties beginning in 2000. One ordered him to "eliminate the outdoor storage of all items in all yard areas & on all open porches, including mattresses, furniture, clothing, appliances, bicycle parts, auto parts, carpeting, kitchen equipment, building materials, litter, trash, garbage & any other used or salvageable materials."
The city attorney's office said that 39 citations or notices or violation have been issued for junk storage and a variety of other problems, including the lack of water or trash service, decaying and rotted porches, handrails and roof supports, a broken chimney, detached downspouts, broken locks and missing siding.
Neighbors have pushed the city to crack down on Yancey for years, saying his neglect is affecting their quality of life, and the value of their properties.
One neighbor, whose town house sits behind a single-family home Yancey owns in the Central District, wrote the city in an email: "Mr. Yancey maintains several dilapidated properties, including some with groups of tenants who regularly smoke illicit substances and alcohol and both urinate and vomit on the properties. Moreover, we have seen rats scurrying on properties, some of whom have wandered into our land."
The city says Yancey has had plenty of time and opportunity to address the problems, and likened his case to that of Hugh Sisley, a landlord whose dilapidated rental properties in the Roosevelt neighborhood racked up more than $600,000 in judgments for health and safety code violations.
Sisley satisfied one $250,000 judgment in 2008 by demolishing two houses, according to city attorney spokeswoman Kimberly Mills. The only other judgment in recent memory that comes close to Yancey's debt to the city was a $1.04 million default judgment by a commercial-property owner in 2009, she said
"Yancey ignored or rebuffed earlier proposals to sell property voluntarily to settle the outstanding judgments," prompting the city to move to sell property at auction to settle the debts, Mills said.
Yancey had choice words for the city when told that the city intended to collect on all five judgments, now totaling $1.76 million. Incredibly, the judgments exceed the assessed values of Yancey's Seattle properties, although he probably could sell them for more than that.
Yancey noted that the house on 15th Street — which has racked up nearly $889,000 in judgments, penalties and interest — is now securely boarded up.
His neighbor at the property, Paul Wolf, 48, said he's had no problems in the 16 months he's lived next to the empty building.
Yancey is a "really nice guy," Wolf said. "You can tell he's a guy who would help you if you needed it."
Other neighbors also spoke kindly of Yancey, describing him as a well-intentioned man who charges modest rents and does what he can to keep up the properties he owns.
Ted Eber, who lives across the street from a house Yancey owns in Seward Park, said the tenants think well of Yancey. The house needs some repair, but it's in decent shape, has never been cited for violations, and, during a recent visit, the yard was well-tended.
Planning to sell parcel
Yancey said he's trying to borrow money from friends, and is planning to sell off one property to pay off mortgages on two properties. That would allow him to use the rents to fix up the houses or pay some of the judgments, he said.
"I'm gonna be really pissed if they take the money, and don't let me pay off the mortgages," he said.
Yancey claims the city's aggressive stance has cut into his cash flow, making it harder to do repairs.
"They've been all over the board on this, and they finally pulled the trigger," Yancey said. "I didn't want to rent these places and be the schmuck who gets a few dollars, and then the people get kicked out because of the legal situation. Moving is hard."
He also insists the city is holding him to a higher standard than other property owners, including some of his neighbors.
Still, he acknowledges, "I wasn't a good shepherd."
Faith Lumsden, director of code compliance at Seattle's planning department, said the city takes a reasonable approach to problem properties, and tries to work with the owners.
"It's common for us to negotiate those cases to a lower number if we have people who are willing to work with us," she said. "(Yancey) is one of two of our more challenging people. We are able to move forward against some of the folks who have been far less than ideal landlords in terms of maintaining their properties."
Yancey, however, wonders why the city won't give him time, as if 10 years is not enough.
Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @susankelleher.
KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A property on East Fir Street that is owned by Clyde Yancey.
KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Yancey's house on 15th Street is boarded up tight.