Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Students Speak About "Rent-A-Wreck" Housing in Bellingham

Students constitute by far the largest identifiable group of renters in Bellingham (approximately 10,000) and they are making their voices heard.  Many have become irritated, then enervated and finally exhausted in the face of rental safety and health problems and the inability of the city to come to terms with the issue over the past decade with an effective inspection ordinance .  To this end, they continue to speak out as individuals and as representatives of the student bodies, especially at Western Washington University.  Here are two recent examples.  

The first piece on Rental Safety and Studentsis By Samantha Goldblatt, a Sehome Board Student Representative and Legal Information Center Coordinator for WWU's  Associated Students.  This first appeared in a recent Sehome Neighborhood newsletter.   Here is Samantha's personally acquired view on the topic:

"While rental licensing and inspection have been hot-button issues in the City of Bellingham for quite a long time, the voices of those who experience issues in their home have often been left out of the conversation. This is mostly due to scheduling City Council Planning Committee meetings when most renters are at school and work and the pervasive fear to speak out because of retaliation from landlords. In the Sehome Neighborhood, a large number of those renters with health and safety problems are students. 

It is no secret that many students in the Sehome Neighborhood are strongly affected by this problem. In November, for instance, the Western Front published a story about a house on the 600 block of E. Myrtle Street that was declared unfit for residence after a large amount of meth residue was found embedded in the walls from previous tenants. According to the article, the girls living in the house were experiencing respiratory issues and had heard rumors about the previous tenants using methamphetamines from friends. The investigation was conducted after the property management company that owned the house refused to test for meth and the tenants contacted the Whatcom County Health Department. The symptoms of two of the residents have since diminished, but one developed asthma, a life-long respiratory issue.  [Click here to read my Zonemaven blog entry on this meth contamination.]

Although it’s easy to dismiss this case as an anomaly, this is a narrative that is all too common. In addition to being a student, I also work for the Associated Students of Western Washington University as the Coordinator of the Legal Information Center. When I tell people this, they often assume that I see students for minor-in-possession and drug charges all the time, but the truth is that a vast majority of the students that come into the office are there for landlord-tenant issues. While it is more common for me to see students that are having issues getting their landlord to make some crucial repair or return their security deposit, there are also a disturbing amount of people who come in, often audibly wheezing from black mold or worn-down from the effort of negotiating with their landlords, to report serious structural or health issues in their home. 

How can we provide support to these students? When I tell them about the Bellingham code-violation system, most choose not to report their issues, in fear that they won’t be able to find a new place to rent if their current living situation is deemed uninhabitable. In the case of the tenants mentioned earlier, at the time that the Western Front article was released the students were crashing with friends who took them in. 

While there are many solutions that could be used with various degrees of effectiveness to improve conditions for renters in Bellingham, it is clear that the way things are going right now are not good for the working-class and student renters that make up a big part of our Sehome community. 

If you are a student experiencing landlord-tenant or any other legal issues, please contact me, Samantha Goldblatt, at:   as dot legalinfo at wwu dot edu"

Western Washington University Student Theo Bikel sent me the following letter regarding rental conditions in Bellingham from the perspective of a student renter.  Theo is working with the student Legislative Affairs Council on campus to develop a Landlord-Tenant Reform proposal that will be presented to the city. 

Here is what Theo has to say.

"Imagine this situation: you sit down at a restaurant and you have no idea if the meal you order is safe to eat. If you get sick, would you think that it is just a normal danger of eating out? What makes something ‘normal’? Is it when everyone you know experiences the same thing? Because there are times in this world that we have to challenge what is ‘normal’.

Washington Title 59 of the Revised Code of Washington establishes the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. Landlords in Bellingham have a responsibility to ensure that they rent safe homes to their tenants and follow Washington State Law.The tragic reality is that violations of Washington State Tenant Laws are ‘normal’ in this town. The reality is that every year students rent homes with hazardous conditions like faulty heaters, no hot water, and bad electrical wiring. This violates Washington State housing codes and endangers our lives. We also suffer undue financial costs when our security deposits are withheld improperly and spurious charges are placed on us.

Although many landlords are responsible and follow their duties, some landlords ignore their tenants concerns and do not address the health and safety violations in the properties they rent. Since many students only live in rentals for 9 months to one year, many of us decide to endure our housing conditions and hope for a better one next year. And even if things are intolerable, many people do not have the time to go to court and are fearful of retribution from their landlord if they seek legal action.

Like the food industry, adequate regulation of rentals should be implemented in this town to protect not only us students, but all renters. The Western Legislative Affairs Council is working on making this a reality and we would love to use your stories and experiences to show the world that this is an injustice that has been normal for too long."

You can contact Theo with your stories and experiences at:
bickelt at students dot wwu dot edu

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