So you've got beef with your landlord. Maybe you didn't get your deposit back when you moved out, or maybe your landlord lets him or herself into your place to make sure you're keeping it clean. What can you do about it? There are a few resources around Bellingham that can help students with landlord disputes so you don't have to immediately take it to court.
Although they can't give legal advice, the Whatcom Opportunity Council helps renters deal with problems with their landlords. For example, if you're facing eviction they can help you draft a payment plan to give to your landlord.
Knowing your rights as a tenant and protecting yourself by taking pictures and making a checklist of damage at move-in, can help prevent problems in the first place.
Monica Gunderson, a Western junior interning at Whatcom Opportunity Council, said that knowing tenant laws can help avoid future problems with landlords.
"The landlord has the upper-hand because they're the ones that are receiving the money from you, that are providing the service, in that way I think that there are at least a handful out there who do take advantage of people," she said.
Gunderson recommends that students always look at the property before signing the lease, and know what the individual landlord or rental company expects out of renters.
Some landlords are also ignorant of tenant laws. Gunderson said she's heard of landlords throwing out a renter's possessions or giving away their belongings when they can't pay rent. It's illegal for a lease to include a provision stating that a landlord may seize a tenant's property if they fall behind on rent.
"Landlords aren't allowed to just come on your property without notice," she said, "and [they can't] take your stuff."
Even if tenants are behind on rent, it's illegal for landlords to lock them out or shut off utilities. When a tenant moves out, the landlord has 14 days to return deposits or give a written statement that they kept all or part of the deposit. The term "deposit" may not be applied to any fee that the tenant can't potentially get back.
If a dispute does occur and a renter doesn't want to take her landlord to small claims court, the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center has mediators that facilitate between the tenant and landlord to help each party reach a compromise. The program has a 90 percent success rate.
Dispute resolution intern and Western senior Alex Okerman said he likes that dispute resolution allows tenants to explain to landlords what is going on in their personal lives and brings creativity instead of courts into solving problems.
The Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center can't give legal advice, but their services are accessible to the community and costs are on a sliding scale.
If mediation or compromise doesn't fix the problem, there are legal avenues a tenant can take to get the damage deposit back or force the rental agency to make repairs without going broke. Northwest Justice Project provides CLEAR Line (Coordinated Education Advice and Referral) where anyone can call 1-888-201-1014 for free legal advice and assistance between 9:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. on weekdays, and 3:15 to 6:30 on Tuesdays.
During the school year, lawyers meet outside the Bellingham library monthly to answer questions from the public for free. Western students also have access to the Legal Information Center in Viking Union 528.
The Legal Information Center doesn't give legal advice, but can help students research laws with web sites like Washingtonlaw.org. Kristina Mader, the office's coordinator, said if a problem can't be solved by communicating, she'll refer students to a lawyer that gives free consultations and offers a reduced rate to students. Taking a landlord to court is still expensive, although students can sometimes win back court costs, said Mader.
"It costs a ton to do anything through the courts, especially if you're a student," Mader said. "It's really unavoidable."
Mader said keeping excellent documentation of everything you sign and taking photographs of the property can help students if they have to go to court because it shows that they are organized and have a legitimate problem.
If you do choose to take legal action against your landlord, it's illegal for the landlord to retaliate, by evicting the renter, for example.