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Monday, March 30, 2020

New union seeks to support Bellingham renters

Editor’s note: This article is one of a series written based on public information requested from the City of Bellingham Planning and Development Department for data covering Bellingham rental inspections between June 13, 2016, when the city began the inspections, and Feb. 9.

The data includes inspections in the York and Sehome neighborhoods and in part of Happy Valley. Other neighborhoods have yet to be inspected.

The data is not inclusive of all inspections as many landlords opt to use private inspectors who are not required to file detailed reports with the city. Links to additional stories can be found at the end of each article.


Written by: Dante Koplowitz-Fleming and Laura Place

Some Bellingham renters say they feel trapped in unpleasant or unsafe housing situations when landlords are unresponsive to or dismissive of health and safety concerns. Those renters are often unaware of the full capacity of their rights.

Power dynamics can infect the landlord-tenant relationship, meaning renters often submit to the landlords out of fear of being evicted.

Western student Stephanie Piccioni, who lives in a rental on North Garden Street, has felt both unheard in her concerns about the property and trapped in her lease.

“I wish there was a way college students could interact with other college students about properties prior to signing a lease,” Piccioni said.

The Bellingham Tenants Union, which was formed by concerned Western students in January, is a resource for tenants who feel taken advantage of by their landlords. The union builds relationships with law advocates and seeks to empower renters by educating them about how to use state laws designed to protect renter rights.

WWU Renter’s Union

The Bellingham Renters Union was co-founded by Galen Herz, Western’s Associated Students Local Issues Coordinator. Herz said he started the program to give renters a voice in matters that directly concern them, but in which they might not otherwise be heard. Although the union was created at Western, it seeks to protect all renters in the city.

“We’re here for students, but also for community members,” Herz said.

Renters make up 54 percent of the Bellingham population, according to 2015 U.S. Census statistics, yet union founders say their voice is missing from decision-making processes that impact them directly.

“At City Council meetings there’s a lot of discussion around housing but there’s no renters in the room,” Herz said. “The mayor’s not a renter, and almost all the people speaking in public comment, they’re not renters.”

Thirty percent of city council members have previous or current experience as landlords, including city council president Michael Lilliquist, who is a co-owner of the Fairhaven Gardens Condominiums.

“Everything is being treated as investments, even homes,” Herz said. “Housing is a human right – if we can’t provide shelter for everybody in the city then it has to change.”

Galen Herz, one of the creators of the Bellingham Tenants Union

The City of Bellingham has spent years discussing issues with rentals. In 2015, the city passed a Rental Registration & Safety Inspection Program after years of contentious debate and resistance from some landlords. The program requires all rental units within city limits to be registered and professionally inspected every three years to evaluate whether they meet basic standards of livability.

Bryan Couture, who rents on the 900 block of Key Street, said he finds his living conditions unsatisfactory and the response from his landlord to be inadequate. Couture described how although the city sent an inspector to the property, he felt that the inspector “didn’t make sure all the stuff was correct.” He said he thought that the city would be more thorough in checking the property’s electrical outlets in the bathroom and kitchen, as well as examining outside gutters.

Moving is not an option for Couture because of financial constraints.

“As long as he doesn’t raise the rent, I can’t see moving,” Couture said.

Tenants – know your rights

The state’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, originally written in 1973, outlines both landlord and tenant responsibilities. Landlords’ duties are described as maintaining a property to keep it “fit for human habitation.” This includes maintaining heating, electrical and plumbing facilities, providing infestation control when necessary and disclosing situational hazards with the property.

The legislation acknowledges that “some tenants live in residences that are substandard and dangerous to their health and safety,” and goes on to say that landlords have a responsibility to respond efficiently and quickly.

Too frequently, landlords are not living up to this standard.

Erika Osland, a resident on North Grant Street, said her unit contained a damaged ceiling that she said was “dripping water every time it rained.”  She said when she initially complained about the problem, maintenance workers were unable to solve the problem, but also said “roofers were unavailable” to come fix the ceiling.

“It has been a month since I had let them know.” Osland said.

Piccioni said that when a burst pipe caused substantial damage to her ceiling, the reparations took nearly three weeks. She described the typical process of getting things fixed in her residence as filing multiple maintenance requests, texting and calling the landlord, and finally getting her parents to contact the landlord.

The Residential Landlord-Tenant Act outlines the following landlord response time frames as follows:

(1) Not more than 24 hours, when the condition deprives the tenant of hot or cold water, heat, or electricity, or is imminently hazardous to life;

(2) Not more than 72 hours, where the defective condition deprives the tenant of the use of a refrigerator, range and oven, or a major plumbing fixture supplied by the landlord; and

(3) Not more than 10 days in all other cases.

Under extreme circumstances in which these time frames are not realistic, landlords are obligated to “remedy the defective condition as soon as possible.”

But if requests for repairs are continually disregarded by the landlord, what can renters do?

Can tenants make their own repairs?

Washington state policy affirms tenants’ ability to resolve issues themselves in the case of an unresponsive landlord:

“If the landlord fails to commence remedial action of the defective condition within the applicable time period after receipt of notice and the estimate from the tenant, the tenant may contract with a licensed or registered person, or with a responsible person capable of performing the repair if no license or registration is required, to make the repair.”

The law goes on to say that the costs for the repairs would be subtracted from that month’s rent, within certain parameters.

Due to lack of housing options, students are often forced to accept the unsatisfactory or even unsafe living conditions of older properties. Various levels of disrepair are considered an inherent part of the package.

“It’s student housing.” Western student Conner Tiland said of his house on High Street. “We had no high expectations in the first place.”

Brendan Laik, a student living on Garden Street, said his landlord was responsive to maintenance issues if he “bugged them a lot.” He described a host of problems with his rental, from missing doorknobs to basic heating.

“There’s no insulation,” Laik said, describing the house’s cracked single-pane windows. He recounted at one point being so cold in the house that his sickness escalated into low-grade hypothermia.

“I couldn’t get warm because the house was so cold.” Laik said.

Mike Hays, owner of property management company Hammer Properties, contextualized the responsibility of managing rentals in Bellingham, a majority of which are older historic homes.

“We have a challenging job,” Hays said. “Ninety-eight percent of our rentals are college students; lots of older houses that have been converted into student housing.”

But if a tenant cannot find common ground with their landlord when seeking to resolve issues, what other options do they have?

Do tenants have real power?

In certain situations, tenants can break their leases early.

If repeated requests for necessary repairs are not fulfilled, a court may find that “the tenant should not remain in the dwelling unit in its defective condition.” While this may be an extreme response, it is an option for tenants in extreme circumstances. Issues such as burst pipes, leaking sewage, structural deficiencies and fire hazards should not be consequences that tenants suffer at the hands of a landlord-centered rental market.

“It seems like landlords are just looking to make a profit.” Tiland said of student housing.

This issue of quality housing is compounded by an overall lack of available housing to begin with.

In spring 2016, Washington’s apartment vacancy rate was at a low of 3.0 percent, according to an Apartment Market Survey from the University of Washington. As of fall 2016, the vacancy rate for Bellingham was at 0.6 percent.

Herz spoke to the vacancy rate, something that the Bellingham Tenants Union identifies as a major problem.

“Everything is being treated as investments, even homes,” Herz said. “Housing is a human right – if we can’t provide shelter for everybody in the city then it has to change.”

Header image: A hole in the ceiling at 1310 Grant St. where repairs are being done to a leaking roof. According to tenants, the property management company did not complete repairs until the unit was inspected by the city. // Photo courtesy of Erasmus Baxter and Alexis Edgar

READ THE SERIES:

After years of debate, rental inspection program implemented
Rental inspection results reveal issues with landlords in York and Sehome neighborhoods
The data: take a look at information about rentals inspected
Mold poses problems not covered in rental inspections
Western rental properties fail multiple city inspections
Majority of Bellingham rentals pass first rounds of inspections
What is it like to be a Bellingham rental inspector?
Bellingham: most common rental inspection issues had simple solutions
New union seeks to support Bellingham renters

2 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately, students renters are the ones that would labeled me as a ‘NIMBY’. I rented in the Sehome neighborhood for many years and actually ended up working for the very nice, local owners of the building after they took notice of how well I kept my home. It was not uncommon for the owners to spend hundreds of hours and close to a thousand dollars per lease to clean common things that should have been kept up (ovens with grease baked on instead of wiped up in the moment) and fix intentional damage (staircase railings kicked apart) caused by student renters.

    I now own a home in the York neighborhood and have complained to the city about the condition the neighbors across from me keep their property in; it was not until homeless people started sleeping on the discarded furniture in the yard the police stepped in.

    I happened to drive by 1013 Grant street after reading this article (and I realize those cited no longer live there) currently there are bikes, propane tanks, and other detritus piled up in the yard. In addition, despite the lawn mower also laying in the yard (and it being in the lease for the property) the yard is completely overgrown. The rental across the street has a large ‘free pile’ out front that includes large furniture, and this after the neighborhood hosted a haul off day two weekends ago to discourage dumping on the sidewalks.

    Respect is a two way street and I will not support the tenants union until there is evidence they act as homeowners do- with common courteously to their neighborhoods.

  2. The article is mistaken that city council president Lilliquist is a landlord. Nope. I live in that unit. No one else owns it, and I have never rented it to anyone. Why didn’t someone ask me?

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