Rampant crime activity at a Kent West Hill home continues to be a problem for nearby residents with few resolutions.
Residents remain frustrated about the drug dealing, stolen vehicles, shootings, fights and prostitution in the neighborhood of South 259th Court, just west of Interstate 5.
“We get to live in a very scary situation every day – needles, prostitution and drug activity,” said one resident during a June 1 meeting at City Hall with Mayor Suzette Cooke.
Residents reached out to the Kent Reporter last fall after an Oct. 18 drive-by shooting at the house, 3015 S. 259th Court. Both gunshot victims were treated and released at local hospitals. Police found nearly 70 gun shell casings outside the home. Neighbors wanted people to know it’s been a problem house for years and they want police to do more to try to stop the incidents.
Neighbors reached out again last week to city officials and the newspaper because crimes continue to haunt the neighborhood. Cooke met with four neighbors in the mayor’s conference room to discuss the problems surrounding the house.
“The hurdle isn’t so much what police are doing,” Cooke said to the residents. “They have had the home under surveillance. They have not been able to come up with one bit of evidence that could be sufficient to meet the demands the court sets.”
Recent state Court of Appeals cases made it clear that just the act of drug dealing isn’t enough for a city to shut down a home.
“We have to have enough to make this stick,” the mayor said. “The hurdle is much more than any of us would think necessary. One of the laws we were attempting to use to go to court is known as the drug house statute, a house being used for drugs, making them or distributing them. But it has to be overwhelmingly showing drug distribution.”
Neighbors see vehicles and people coming and going from the home on a regular basis.
“They have a drive-through in the yard,” one neighbor said. “They come out of the door and do the transaction. You can see the exchange.”
Police are working with the City Attorney’s Office and code enforcement officers to try to stop the problems with the home but haven’t been successful.
“The house on the West Hill has had very few code enforcement violations and when cited, the property owner and/or tenants have brought the property into compliance,” said Victoria Robben, assistant city attorney, in an email. “Also, recently, there have been relatively few reports of criminal behavior at the West Hill house, and the calls that have come in have been made after the fact, leaving the police with little evidence that the alleged problem originated from the property.”
Robben found out during research into the case the challenges for a city to shut down a suspected drug house.
“In the United States and Washington, the constitutional right one has to be secure in his or her own property is extraordinary,” Robben said. “The city is prohibited by the Constitution from taking action against a property without current and ongoing violations of law. Currently, the evidence known to this office does not support legal action. This office does continue to monitor the situation very closely, and if we can establish a case, we will take aggressive action.”
Kent city officials shut down a nuisance home last fall in North Park, a neighborhood just east of the ShoWare Center, but Robben said that case had few similarities compared to the West Hill home.
“I have been working with the police department on this property for the last several months,” Robben said. “It is vastly different from the house in the North Park neighborhood. At the North Park house, there were ongoing crimes that were viewed and immediately reported by neighbors, or viewed by police officers. In addition, the North Park property was littered with garbage, human waste and drug paraphernalia.”
Cooke said police have visited the West Hill home, owned by a man whose adult daughter lives there.
“Our officers were allowed into the home to look, the occupant allowed them to do so,” Cooke said. “They found nothing after the invitation to come in.”
Watch, calls continue
Cooke said there were 62 calls to 911 about the house in 2016, and 14 so far in 2017. Many of the calls are from officers when they see a suspected stolen vehicle or other suspicious activity at the house. Residents also call 911 when they see suspicious activity.
The mayor encouraged the neighbors to keep calling 911 whenever they see a suspicious person or vehicle in the area.
One neighbor asked the mayor to help make sure police continue to watch the house.
“I’d like to request an unmarked car or marked car to set up a certain amount of days – that they park at the end of the road,” the resident said.
Cooke said she would pass along that message to police.
“But I can’t guarantee it because it’s about prioritization of calls and we are understaffed,” she said. “They have been doing a lot of focus on this house but they haven’t been successful. The results aren’t there with the evidence the courts require.”
Neighbors became hopeful at the meeting with the mayor about a potential solution to closing down the reported drug house when Cooke discussed Sound Transit’s expansion of light rail from SeaTac along I-5 to Federal Way by 2024. The agency is in the process of purchasing properties in the path of the light rail line and residents thought the problem house might be a property that needs to be bought.
Rachelle Cunningham, a Sound Transit public information officer, looked up the property’s address and found out it sits just outside the boundary of the land needed to expand light rail.
“At this point, it doesn’t look like the Federal Way Link Extension project will be purchasing the whole property, but there is the likelihood of a small easement or temporary construction easement along the easterly edge of the property,” Cunningham said in an email. “The home would not be impacted.”
Residents who met with Cooke, however, were encouraged when they found out about possibly joining the Neighbors of West Hill Neighborhood Council group that’s near where they live. The city’s Neighborhood Council program features organized groups that work to improve communication and livability in neighborhoods by providing opportunities for residents to participate in the civic process.
“It’s not just the cul-de-sac, it spreads into the rest of the neighborhood,” a resident said about the nuisance home.