In the late spring of 2012, senior Paul Hyun Park and his roommates went looking for off-campus housing. Because they got into the housing-search later than most, they ran out of options and settled for a Google-one-star rated company: Lakeway Reality.
“We knew this, but we said ‘you know what, let’s go’. If we pay our bills, we’ll have a house. They’ll fix it up,” Park said. “It was dangerous because we made a bunch of assumptions where we thought they would keep their end of the deal and that they would respect us as tenants.”
From the get-go, they knew they were dealing with something that wouldn’t end well. Park’s initial meeting with his landlord was marred by the official showing up two hours late. Park was disgruntled, but when his roommates did the walkthrough of their new place and deemed it satisfactory under the assumption that Lakeway would take care of some obvious problems, he agreed to go along. After signing-off on the lease and moving in, Park quickly realized that something was deeply wrong.
The front door failed to lock and was made of easily breakable material. Broken light bulbs were left exposed around the building. There wasn’t a stovetop, the carpet was tattooed with burn marks and a partially decomposed rat corpse was found in the basement.
“I was so sketched out that I didn’t sleep in that house until my roommates did,” Park said.
Park then spent the next month rebuilding his house, paint layer by paint layer, carpet by carpet until he deemed it livable. He was reimbursed by Lakeway for the cost of the paint, but not for any of the time and labor it cost. As time went on, other problems continued to develop. On one particular occasion, a clerical error with Lakeway nearly put Park in a situation where he’d be out $1,000 or be evicted. Luckily, Park is an accountant-in-training and knew how to navigate an accounting ledger. After exchanging a set of emails and going through the books, he managed to explain the mistake to his realtor.
“What would have happened if a tenant wasn’t an accountant though? A lot of people don’t know even where to start with a general ledger, so there’s a good chance that they’d be out $1,500 or more,” Park said. Lakeway Realty wasn’t able to comment on this information at the time of print.
“I wanted to go on a social media rampage… I wanted to take them to court, but my problem is that I’m involved in campus. I’m taking my CPA [Certified Public Accountant Exam] and I just don’t have the time.”
Park’s story holds a stark similarity what other students have experienced with realtors in Bellingham. Without time or money, many are left out in the dry if they have a problem in their place of living. Some instances of poor renting conditions can be financially dangerous, while others with consequences like mold, gas leaks or biohazards like raw sewage or rodents can be potentially life-threatening in short and long terms. In many cases, it’s difficult for students to fight against shady realty because their issues would only be dealt with in the small claims court where the legal strength of their realtors often outweighs them. Often the small settlement they could get in the end is dwarfed by the consequences of being kicked out of their house by their disgruntled landlords or personal damages left behind from living an unfit home, said senior Theo Bickel, a local renters’ rights activist.
At the end of his sophomore year, Bickel moved into a house with a group of roommates.
“I used to sympathize with my friends who would have issues like this. But I never thought it was abnormal, that it was just something that we had to deal with,” Bickel said.Like Park, Bickel got into the housing-search late. Although his initial introduction to his house and landlord were good, red flags quickly came up.
The first came when one of his roommates misread a lease clause regarding subletting and tried to invite another roommate. Although it was a simple misunderstanding, the landlord threatened to kick Bickel’s friend out. It was in this situation that Bickel first realized how much the odds were stacked against him and other college renters.
“After arguing with the landlord ourselves, our roommate’s mother got involved and tried to get help from Western. Eventually she got in contact with the Campus Community Coalition, who, although they do some stuff with promoting information about renters’ rights, they didn’t have the legal infrastructure to protect us,” Bickel said. “We eventually started reading Washington State law, but the issue more or less subsided.”
In the beginning of Theo’s junior year, he and his roommates returned to the house. Although their landlord made numerous promises to keep the place clean, they returned to find their bathroom still in construction, dust and dirt spread throughout the dwelling, their windows broken or sealed shut and a plastic bag and broken fan piece inside their furnace. The furnace later became a cause for concern as it began to click on and off at will. When Bickel and his roommates eventually had the piece inspected, it was found to have a broken regulator, a consequence that could have led to the furnace catching fire.
With Bickel’s roommate’s bedroom located a yard away from the furnace and the only nearest exit locked with a key that only the landlord possessed, Bickel speculates that if they hadn’t noticed the problem when they did, the consequences could have been fatal in something that is easily preventable.
“No question about that,” he said.
After this, Bickel turned his frustration into action and joined the AS Legislative Affairs Council. By sharing his experience and empowering others to talk about theirs, Bickel worked alongside his peers and AS Vice President for Governmental Affairs Kaylee Galloway to draft the 27-page “Rental Safety Proposal,” approved by the AS Board of Directors during Dec. 11’s board meeting.
The proposal will be included in the Local Legislative Agenda, which AS Local Liason Joseph Levy will lobby on with city and county officials. The proposal makes clear expectations, like “Bellingham needs new city ordinances passed to ensure that the law is enforced.” The document also highlights the physical, financial and psychological harm that poor renting conditions may have on tenants.
Further, key aspects noted in the document include educating landlords and tenants about renting expectations, creating a registry of local landlords available to the public and enforcing city-wide inspections at all leasing locations for health and safety purposes. While the education aspect can mostly be covered by the Associated Students, and is currently being discussed in the Legal Information Center and Board of Directors, other suggestions in the proposal will require measures to be implemented at the city level.
Levy believes that the majority of Bellingham City Council members will favor with the arguments made by student tenants. Galloway agrees that the Rental Safety Proposal and other rental-related action in Bellingham will be successful this year in ensuring students have safer renting experiences.
In a unanimous vote last June, city council members asked Mayor Kelli Linville to ensure that an analysis of Bellingham’s rental climate would be included in the 2014 budget. The council is currently discussing plans to implement rental licensing and inspections. With this in mind, students who are currently renting or are planning on renting should know that there are resources on campus that can help them.
“Most students move off campus. So this is an issue that hits home, in more ways than one,” Galloway said.
The AS Legal Information Center is the first resource that students can call upon in the event of conflict with a realtor. Although the office has been spearheading many initiatives for campus-wide education about rental issues in Bellingham, it also functions as a safe-space where students can talk about their rental problems and seek advice. LIC Coordinator Samantha Goldblatt said the office has legal resources on hand that can help students take their arguments to the next level if needed.
“I try to help people weigh the pros and cons of their situation, and then empower them to make a decision based on that,” Goldblatt said. Lastly, the LIC would like to invite all students to get involved in the community conversation regarding renting in Bellingham and attending rental issues-related events.
At noon on Feb. 3, local lawyers will be available in Red Square to educate students on their legal options, thanks to the LIC. That evening, students who have experienced renting problems in Bellingham are invited to testify at the Bellingham City Council meeting at 7 p.m. and City Hall.
“If I could say anything to students, it’s that it’s so much more fun to party, have fun and study, when you have a nice place to go home to,” Park concluded.