1210 Ellis St. may be known to those in the neighborhood for the front yard sign proclaiming “23 code violations.”
When she first moved into the house, Kara Henry noticed mold on the walls. As an asthmatic with chronic pain, “I've had some weird health stuff come up since living here,” she said.
Unresolved code violations are beginning to be spoken about more openly in Bellingham. Tenants Revolt, an organization fighting against illegal renting practices, has created a map where code violations around the city can be tracked. So far, 230 submissions have been added.
One of the biggest issues with the house is the upstairs bathroom.
“They fixed the upstairs bathroom and then it leaked,” Henry said. The bathtub leaked into the downstairs bedroom, which produced more mold and made the space uninhabitable.
The 1210 Ellis St. tenants have received no compensation from their landlord, Lakeway Realty, for the issues and have had to cover rent for the empty room, she said.
Henry is a former Western Washington University student and understands that many people dealing with this issue also attend the university.
4,424 Western students, or about 30% of the student body, must find off-campus housing from one of the many rental companies in the city.
“They know exactly the conditions these kids are going to be faced with and they offer no recourse or protection for them,” said Rebecca Quirke, founder of Tenants Revolt.
She has spoken with students who lost student loans because they have had to move out of flooding bedrooms, students who have dropped out because of severe mold toxicity and students who have remained in sexual relationships just to have a place to stay.
“These are not one or two [students],” Quirke said.
Henry believes the university should provide more resources for student renters.
“I think that Western is liable for this,” she said.
Joey Williams, a resident of 1210 Ellis St., believes it is important for students to have decent housing. “If you're not feeling good [at home], how are you expected to do good [at school]?” he said.
Code enforcement officers are in charge of ensuring city properties are in compliance with the Bellingham Municipal Code. However, it takes a few steps to get to them.
Henry and her housemates submitted maintenance requests and copies of the Revised Code of Washington, or RCW, that details the time and manner in which landlords must respond.
When Lakeway failed to respond within the timeframe, Henry and her housemates requested a reinspection through the City Planning Department. The city inspector confirmed that all requests were code violations and gave Lakeway two weeks to respond.
Finally, when Lakeway did not respond, a third inspection by the code enforcement officers reconfirmed the code violations. Since then, due to more ignored maintenance requests and inspections by the Planning Department and the Code Enforcement Officers, the property now has 35 code violations, Henry said.
“It's super inaccessible for a lot of people,” Henry said.
It feels like a full-time job, she and her housemate Aidan Hersh said.
“We’ve spent probably more than 100 hours already emailing, calling, going to city council meetings,” Henry said.
Lakeway renters have reached out to other renters and the sign outside their house has attracted some messages. “There’s definitely a network forming,” Henry said.
Henry said they will definitely be pursuing legal action, as they have not been compensated, even when the city inspector announced that Henry’s bedroom and the empty room on the first floor were uninhabitable.
“They are smart and they know what their rights are,” said Quirke.
She said their determination and support from family have helped them move forward with their efforts.
“Nothing can change if people think that their situation is in a vacuum,” Hersh said, emphasizing that even a small percentage of empowered Lakeway renters could push the property owner beyond their capacity.
“The more information we can share the better off we all are,” Quirke said.
Lakeway will often meet with city officials without involving the renters, show up to do work that is not up to code and not safe and then have to redo it all over again, Henry said.
Williams said city officials and departments do not know the process for dealing with renter complaints and the non-responses from landlords. “Aren’t you here for that?” he said.
David Hansen, the owner of the 1210 Ellis St. property since 2005, has been transferring many Lakeway properties into their own LLCs, Henry said. The owner of the property is now listed as 1210 Ellis St. LLC.
“It makes it harder for us to do a class action lawsuit against him,” Henry explained. “They know there's some shady stuff happening.”
In response to an interview request, Lakeway Realty sent a prepared statement, the same one they sent to FOX 13 Seattle for their coverage of the “Shit Rental Radar.”
“We have received pushback from the Tenants Revolt group, and repairs have been delayed on several occasions due to protest efforts, and by requests from government agencies to ensure compliance, " according to the statement.
Henry and her housemates said there have been no protests by them or Tenants Revolt, and the only times they have denied repairs was when they were not given proper notice and when repairmen wanted to paint over a patch job they did, instead of dealing with the mold.
“[Landlords] have just been collecting a paycheck to do the least amount of work,” Williams said.
The residents of 1210 Ellis St. believe a movement has started.
“We need to work together to hold these people accountable. The city, our landlords, and whoever else is involved in that process,” he said.
Jemma Alexander (she/her) is a campus life reporter for The Front. She is a senior majoring in journalism new/ed and minoring in Arab American studies. When she's not doing homework, Jemma is likely working, talking loudly over movies with her roommates or dancing ’till she drops. You can reach her at email@example.com.