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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Student tenants want to know their rights

Some look to Western for aid in their defense against their landlords

A "For Rent" sign sits in front of a blue mansion in Bellingham (2018). // File photo by Harrison Amelang.
A “For Rent” sign standing outside a house on North Garden Street (2018). Hammer Properties owner Mike Hays said landlords can make more by renting to students. // File photo by Harrison Amelang.

By Dawson Eifert

Feeling taken advantage of by local property management, some students want Western to help provide resources and information on tenants’ rights in Washington state.

According to Western’s Office of Admissions, the university currently has 16,142 students and an estimated 74% of whom live off campus. Because of this, property management companies around Bellingham have a large number of student tenants. While students undoubtedly provide a large amount of revenue for these companies, their relationship with these tenants is not always peaceful.

Chris Freas, the leasing manager at Apex Property Management, has his own perspective on student tenants. 

“It comes down to respect,” Freas said. “Kids have been at home for a long time, they sometimes don’t know how to act when they’re on their own. They need to be more respectful.”

Some Western students, such as Annika Aschoff, would argue the opposite about their property managers and landlords. Annika, along with her six roommates, leases a house with Lakeway Realty, who declined the opportunity to comment on this story.

“They don’t take care of anything and they don’t respect us,” Aschoff said. 

Aschoff, a fourth-year student, has been leasing her house for two years, but it hasn’t necessarily been a pleasant experience. A couple months ago, a piece of the ceiling in her home collapsed into her living room.

“It took them a couple weeks before they would even come and take a look at it and water had begun to leak into the house in the meantime,” Aschoff said. “We lived in uneasiness for a couple weeks.”

Unfortunately for Aschoff and her roommates, their issues with their home and Lakeway Realty didn’t end there. Recently, one of her roommates found mold in her room.

“Lakeway did nothing,” Aschoff said. “She constantly found mold on her things.”

The mother of one of Ascoff’s roommates is an attorney and it wasn’t until she got involved that Lakeway would apparently put effort into amending the problems they were facing.

For some student tenants, the power a property management company like Lakeway Realty yields can feel like they have a vise grip on the rental market. 

“I definitely think local landlords take advantage of students,” Aschoff said. “Lakeway has a monopoly, so they can be slumlords.”

Those in Aschoff’s house are not the only Western students dissatisfied with their property management. Sharayah Gorham, another fourth-year student, has experienced similar problems with her landlords at WWU Living.

“I feel like they take advantage of us,” Gorham said. “They think we’re irresponsible and try to catch us up in false mistakes.”

Gorham often had to deal with financial issues while leasing with WWU Living, who also didn’t reach out for this story. For example, Gorham’s landlord apparently charged her twice for rent for one month, by mistake. When Gorham was charged with the rent for the second time, she was charged with a $100 late fee which she had to rigorously contest to be dropped. This happened on two occasions.

On another occasion, Gorham believes one of her landlords opened her mail in her lockbox, searching for a check addressed to them.

“I know that it’s a felony to look through someone’s mail,” Gorham said. “They wouldn’t even apologize to me. They make it seem like they can get away with anything.”

When it comes to tenants’ rights and what exactly local property management can and can’t get away with, Freas doesn’t believe Apex has any responsibility in providing additional information to its tenants. 

“We recommend students read their leases, but at the same time, we can only say so much in a lease,” Freas said. “Just know your rights.”

For many of Western’s students, their rights as tenants are not common knowledge.

“I definitely don’t know my rights as a tenant,” Gorham said.

Because so many of Western’s students rent housing off-campus, Gorham believes the university could provide students with more information on what they’re legally entitled to.

“Western could give students resources that describe our rights as tenants,” Gorham said.

Aschoff had a similar opinion.

“I think providing more information to students, or just creating a transparent dialogue on our rights, would be very helpful for us as inexperienced renters.”

Read The Front’s coverage of Western Off-Campus Living and its new partnership with Rent College Pads here.

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