With an average of 15,000 students attending Western each year, Bellingham is full of young adults encountering new experiences, including renting a home for the first time.
The Bellingham Tenants Union, a local nonprofit, seeks to help students and the greater Bellingham community understand their rights as tenants, working to create better experiences for local renters.
Founded by Western students in 2017, the union has already won two housing battles campaigned for by the union’s members. Both wins included the passing of an ordinance that banned tenant income discrimination and the approval of city-wide accessory dwelling units.
As part of their mission to help empower renters, the union regularly holds meetings to discuss tenants rights issues. On Sunday, Oct. 21, attorney David Henken of Law Advocates will lead a tenants’ rights meeting to advise renters and facilitate questions.
Law Advocates is a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance to low-income residents of Whatcom and Island counties. Their website says this service is made possible by volunteer lawyers, paralegals, students and community members.
Natasha Hessami, a Bellingham Tenants Union organizer, said the goals for the upcoming meeting are to educate renters about the laws that are in place to hold landlords accountable in Washington State and Bellingham.
“Bellingham Tenants Union wants tenants to have safe, healthy and affordable homes,” Hessami said. “We want to protect tenant rights and part of that is letting people know they have rights, especially students.”
According to the union’s website, their vision for the future is for all housing to be owned and managed by the public, without an agenda driven by profit, but by what’s best for people.
Hessami, a Western student majoring in biochemistry, said she wanted to get involved with the union because she heard about students facing problems with high rent prices. In her own experience, Hessami said she’s encountered a lack of transparency with landlords.
“When I was signing my lease, I was asking questions and the person I was signing the lease from asked me, ‘What, are you a lawyer? Stop asking so many questions.’ That was my first introduction to a landlord,” Hessami said.
She said during her time renting in Bellingham, she’s had to move into houses with mold, broken heating systems, leaks, long wait-times for repairs and rent increases every year by at least $50 per room in a house with roommates. Since getting involved with the union, Hessami learned she’s not alone.
On campus, droves of students pile out of their classes every day. Among them are current and prospective renters who may have no knowledge about their rights as tenants.
Western sophomores Amanda Wells, Madison Cromer and Payton Fowler are roommates in a four bedroom house on Harris Avenue. They said they share similar problems as first-time renters in their current residence.
“Getting started was scary. The lease was a little overwhelming and the rental company had a hard time explaining things,” Cromer said. “There was a short video they showed us, but it seemed like we only got explained what they wanted us to know.”
After getting the keys to their new house, all four roommates were optimistic about their new home. Then, Wells said they started having a difficult time communicating with their rental company about billing mistakes.
“Within the first month the rental company was charging us a bill for Puget Sound Energy for dates we weren’t even in the house yet,” Wells said. “Then they charged us an invoice fee for not paying the bill that didn’t belong to us.”
Wells, Cromer and Fowler also said the house they live in is fairly old. Although their landlord has new carpets put in, some of the cabinets are falling apart and the bedroom and closet doors don’t work well or at all, despite repairs.
On top of their housing issues are looming concerns about being expected to know if they’ll renew their lease four months in advance, a common complaint Fowler said they saw on their rental company’s online reviews.
According to Hessami, the union is attempting to expand by starting a chapter at Western that would provide support specifically for student renters. For people like Wells, Fowler and Cromer, the chapter could help them navigate through their housing issues.
Hessami said the chapter meetings would potentially include workshops on how to talk to a landlord, knowing tenant rights and how to get rid of furniture when moving out.
“If you have an idea of something you want to see presented – a workshop or more info – bring it to the first meeting,” Hessami said. “[The group will] need officers and members so if you want to take on a leadership role, I encourage that.
Hessami mentioned in addition to supporting renters and tenant rights, the union is also involved with finding long-term housing solutions through policy change. She said the union endorsed the Bellingham Home Fund, a 2012 housing levy that increased property taxes to provide funds for more affordable housing to be built in the area.
According the levy’s website, the funds also help preserve existing affordable housing options and emergency rent assistance. The levy is up for renewal on November 2018 ballots.
Hessami said the union has endorsed the levy because of the important work it does to provide new forms of affordable housing in Bellingham. She said there’s a building currently being constructed on State Street that will provide temporary housing for homeless youth and emergency rent relief.
“As much as the Bellingham Tenants’ Union supports college students who may not know their rights, we’re also supporting homeless individuals and older folks who are renting,” Hessami said.
Along with tenants not having adequate knowledge of their rights, Hessami said there are also several laws against rent control in Washington, allowing landlords to raise rent every year without any restrictions. She said the union hopes legislators follow in the footsteps of Canada, where a rent control law has already been passed.
According to B.C. Government news, in September the rent control law that was passed will only allow landlords to increase rent by 2.5 percent every 12 months.
“That is something that elected officials on the state level need to act on,” Hessami said.
“[That’s] where lobbying comes into play.”
She said until further laws are passed regarding rent control and tenant rights, landlords should work with their renters to build transparency by being responsive, letting them know why rent is being raised and why there may be fees.
“I think large rental agencies have a lot of work to do in compassionate management,” Hessami said. “I believe I speak for a lot of students who have rented from large rental companies who say they’ve had a lot of difficulties getting their rental deposits back or repairs done in time and understanding how to navigate application fees and why there even are application fees.”
The Bellingham Tenants’ Union tenants’ rights meeting will assemble at Localgroup Studio on 221 Prospect St. on Sunday, Oct. 21 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Students can join the union using their name and email address on their website.