Seattle ‘hacker house’ founder battling UW after broken pipe sinks startup enclave

Andy Rebele stands on the front steps of Romero House, a “hacker house” that he was running in Seattle’s University District. A fence surrounds the property following repeated break-ins. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The University of Washington is embroiled in a landlord-tenant dispute with a tech entrepreneur over a property he rents from the school in Seattle’s University District. As a result, a large home intended to serve as a “hacker house” for ambitious and intellectual people looking to live the startup life is now sitting empty.

Andy Rebele is a startup veteran who opened his first hacker house in Seattle in 2013. The concept brings together scientists, entrepreneurs, coders and other geeks in a short-term living situation, surrounded by like-minded people. With existing houses in Seattle’s Capitol Hill and in the Wallingford neighborhood, Rebele signed a 10-year lease in 2015 to create his third, the Romero House, two blocks from UW’s Startup Hall.

The website for Rebele’s Grokhome Hacker Houses promises “a supportive environment for smart people working on interesting projects, startups and more,” adding that those visiting Seattle for a variety of tech-related pursuits would find the “perfect place to help you succeed.”

But in early February 2019, a broken water pipe damaged Romero House significantly, making the UW-owned house unusable.

Romero House in Seattle’s University District on Jan. 9. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

A property for intellectuals

The giant, old, bluish-gray house at 902 N.E. 42nd St. was built in 1908. Just blocks from the UW campus, the home is situated among office and apartment buildings and what’s left of single-family dwellings in that area of the U-District.

According to a listing on Zillow, the UW purchased the property in 2012 for $5 million — a 651-percent jump over a previous sale of $665,000 six years earlier. The university clearly had its eye on the upzoning changes that came to the neighborhood via a Seattle City Council vote in 2017, which would allow the development of taller buildings.

Rebele, founder and CEO of Pure Watercraft, makers of electric outboard motors for boats, said he was motivated to use the money he made in the startup world to help Seattle hold its own in that world when he started his hacker houses.

“There are lots of these hacker house things in the Bay Area, and there was not one in Seattle. It can can be a really good thing,” Rebele said, adding that he was interested in assisting people who wanted to be stimulated intellectually, not those with a desire to partake in legal marijuana and watch TV all day, as he put it.

An illustration on the Grokhome Hacker House website promoting the idea. (Grokhome Image)

When Romero House opened in 2015, the late Vikram Jandhyala, then Vice Provost for Innovation at the UW’s CoMotion office, called the house a “very cool idea” that fit in with how the university wanted to make its neighborhood an “innovation district.”

Rebele’s ROM Properties LLC rented the live/work space for about $5,800 a month. Seattle-based firm Blanton Turner managed the property for the UW. Rebele charged guests about $1,100 a month for fully furnished accommodations with beds, linens, bathroom towels, kitchen supplies, bicycles and more. Occupancy ebbed and flowed with the seasons. Romero House had the potential to house as many as 18 guests during summer months.

Rebele said the business, across all three of his hacker houses, does not make money and breaks even at best.

The perfect storm

When a record snowstorm hammered Seattle in February 2019, there were no tenants staying at Romero House. But Grokhome employee Yolayne Medina, a “house captain” responsible for various tasks for all of the hacker house properties, was dealing with a major incident.

Email exchanges between Medina, Rebele and Andrew Guenther and Heidi Turner of Blanton Turner, the property management company, show a frantic effort to get someone to deal with the water crisis discovered at the house on Feb 8 and 9.

In various emails, provided by both Rebele and the UW, Medina notified Guenther of a water problem the evening of Feb. 8. It was discovered when a guest from another hacker house was visiting Romero House to pick something up. Medina attached pictures showing her bare feet in standing water, damage to ceilings, and water streaming from a ceiling light fixture. She asked for help ASAP in getting the house’s water turned off.

Ceiling damage and a flooded bathroom are seen after the water pipe burst last February at Romero House. (Photos courtesy of Andy Rebele)

A reply from Guenther on Feb. 9 asked Medina if she had called a plumber. In a series of replies throughout the afternoon, Medina said she couldn’t find anyone to come to the house; she said the situation was serious and she did not feel safe. She said the house was falling apart, and she was scared to go into the basement to turn off the power.

At 2:05 p.m, Medina wrote: “Andrew are you there? Should I call 911? I can’t find help.”

Rebele and Turner also exchanged emails on the afternoon of the 9th. Rebele wrote, in part, “This is an emergency situation and there is damage happening right now due to major flooding. This is a landlord issue. A pipe broke due to no guest activity. (There is not a guest in the house right now.) It is a structural issue. Help is needed immediately. We cannot be responsible for finding an available plumber for you.”

The property managers and UW contend that the lack of guests staying at the house on the date of the pipe burst means that the heat had to have been shut off at Romero House — a dangerous situation for water pipes, especially during a freezing winter storm.

In an email on Feb. 11 to Gary Eng, a senior asset manager with UW Real Estate, Rebele wrote, “The heat was maintained, regardless of occupancy. The heat was not turned down or off during the period leading up to the pipe failure. Any insinuation to the contrary is false and offensive since I already informed you in no uncertain terms that it was kept on. … The pipe failed because it was improperly insulated. The house was maintained, and the heat kept on. The pipe was completely enclosed in a space not accessible to the tenant. It was not a fault of the tenant or lack of maintenance; it was a fault of the building’s infrastructure (plumbing construction).”

Rebele reiterated his stance to GeekWire, saying, “The heat was on. We confirmed that to them. [Medina] was there and knew 100 percent that it was on. They have no evidence that it was not (because it was).”

Break-ins and more damage

A month after the broken pipe and water damage, the university and the property managers made the decision to proceed with repairs to Romero House. Blanton Turner hired two different restoration contractors to perform the work, starting on March 15, 2019.

Over the next several months, trespassers and squatters broke into the unoccupied property repeatedly, leaving behind drug paraphernalia and human waste, causing further damage and security concerns — and ultimately changing the nature of the dispute between Rebele and his landlord.

Rebele said Medina warned property managers in April that she had seen people sleeping on the front porch of the house. In May, Rebele received an email letting him know that a break-in had occurred, that a restoration contractor found multiple people in the house and that “there was a considerable amount of damage, including broken windows and debris.” The property manager said the cleanup and damage assessment would be ongoing along with restoration work, and they planned to add “fencing, lights and 24-hour security for the short term.”

A note the next day added, “Further abatement and biohazard cleanup will occur throughout this time.”

Hypodermic needles and other debris are seen inside Romero House after squatters broke in and used the property last year while it was being renovated by the University of Washington. (Photos courtesy of Andy Rebele)

Dozens of images shared by Rebele from inside the house at the time showed needles and other debris left by intruders who were clearly living in the house. There was also blood on bedding, and workers were seen in white hazmat suits inside the house.

Matters were complicated by the fact that some of Rebele’s hacker house property was left in the house during restoration work. No clear inventory was taken of what was allegedly moved out to make way for the contractors. It’s unclear what was stolen and damaged during break-ins, including bicycles that Rebele provided for his tenants. He estimates he lost about $10,000 worth of property, but the UW said he’s been unable to tell them exactly what was lost.

The university said water damage repairs cost more than $250,000, and that by September, Blanton Turner was advising Rebele that Romero House work would soon be completed and the property would be cleared for occupancy by Oct. 1. Medina did a walk through on Sept. 18 and Guenther emailed on Sept. 24 with a final 13-item checklist of minor repairs to complete before turning the house over, such as replacing a baseboard heater, cleaning a bathtub, caulking a window, etc.

The house was broken into again on or around Sept. 27. By the beginning of October when he was supposed to take back possession of the house and begin listing it for guests again, Rebele refused. He wasn’t confident in the security, and he did not want Medina staying there.

He stopped paying rent.

The security fence around Romero House and a detached garage was one solution to keep intruders out during renovation work. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

A security standoff

The UW and Rebele disagree strongly on the effectiveness of security measures that have been taken at Romero House.

Since Oct. 1, when the property was returned to Rebele and he has refused to occupy it, the UW said it has incurred additional costs, including:

  • More than $25,000 in repairs and clean-up from break-ins.
  • Continued private security visits 3-4 times per night at a cost of $1,450 per month.
  • More than $1,000 in landscape trimming and plant removal, to make the house more visible from the street, per recommendations from a University District Partnership crime prevention specialist.

“The issue of trespassers in a vacant home is, sadly, a circular one,” said Victor Balta, UW’s senior director of communications. “A vacant house is attractive to potential trespassers, and the home was habitable on Oct. 1, when it was returned to the tenant. He has refused to take possession of the home, which leaves the UW unable to lease it to another tenant without legal action.”

The second notice to vacate, detailing back rent owed, sent by the University of Washington to Andy Rebele. (Image via Pacifica Law Group)

A 14-day notice to vacate the premises was sent to Rebele on Nov. 13, which the UW said he refused to accept. A second notice was sent to his attorney on Dec. 6.

On Dec. 23, citing Rebele’s refusal to pay rent for October, November and December, the UW said he was in default, terminated his lease and filed an unlawful detainer in King County court to compel Rebele to pay $17,644.44 in back rent (see document below).

The UW’s Startup Hall — the concrete building in center — is visible from the hacker house in the University District. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

From the sidewalk in front of the house, which is ringed by a 6-foot-tall chainlink security fence, Rebele scoffed last week at the notion of “drive-by” visits and other steps taken or not taken by the UW to make Romero House safer. He pointed out a back window on the house that is still boarded up — the UW said that repair is imminent.

The entire ordeal paints a larger picture of a city that is struggling with growth, and the consequences of the tech boom, in a neighborhood that is destined to go up as it pushes more people out. Can Seattle cope with issues around homelessness at the same time that it tries to foster the next generation of startups?

“We have geeks. That’s what we do. They just do their business,” Rebele said. “They don’t make loud noises. We’re like the best neighbors for our neighbors.”

He wants his hacker house back up and running, full of people doing the things the space was intended for, in a neighborhood that both sides had hoped would attract innovation, not crime.

But Rebele said the UW has ignored his desire to have the entire ordeal mediated outside of court. And a he-said / they-said standoff appears to be where Rebele and the UW remain.

“We didn’t pay rent. It’s true,” Rebele said. “Because we wouldn’t take responsibility for a house that they had turned into a habitual squatter den. We haven’t paid rent since they restored it, but it hasn’t been made safe for human beings to live there. It’s not livable if you are getting broken into every three weeks by a bunch of heroin addicts.”

Unlawful Detainer Complaint 12.23.19 by GeekWire on Scribd

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