When Leigha Hendrix discovered her Longview apartment complex had mold, rats, leaks and maintenance problems, she thought Washington’s seemingly renter-friendly tenant protection laws would help. But the laws tangled her in confusion and required lawyers, which she couldn’t afford.
What she faced is not unusual, lawyers and renter aid groups told The Daily News. Enforcement of rental law through the court system leaves many people to fall through the cracks. New Washington laws should help streamline the process, but advocates say there is a ways to go before all renters get the protection the laws promise.
Hendrix wanted a fresh start with her daughter, a cancer survivor, but found the state of the apartment made her child’s breathing problems worse.
“We had to up her steroid inhaler and her allergy medication just because her breathing had gotten so bad being in there, from all the mold and moisture and rats,” Hendrix said.
Cindy Elliott, who lived in a neighboring unit, said she couldn’t even describe how bad the rat problem was, along with leaks and mold.
“I would hate to see somebody else move into that place,” she said.
They both contacted Northwest Justice Project, a pro-bono legal service, as tenant complaints are handled through the courts in Washington. Neither has filed a lawsuit.
On paper, renters have rights and ways to deal with landlord problems, said Peter Houck, a staff attorney with the King County Bar Association who also teaches renter law at Seattle University.
But “in practice,” he said, “The laws don’t really work for renters.”
“Renters usually can’t afford lawyers and usually you need that to make your rights a reality,” Houck said. “In contrast with that, most landlords have a lawyer they work with.”
The change comes after the county government received millions of federal dollars to help renters since the pandemic began.
Barriers to help
Hendrix and Elliott brought up the issues they faced to landlord Paul Jollissaint, who lives in Kalama and owns more than a dozen properties in Longview and Kelso, according to the county auditor’s website.
Both women lived at 2128 46th Ave. in Longview and complained of rats, mold and a leaking roof to Jollissaint, but they said nothing changed.
Jollissaint said he gave all tenants notice he planned to replace the roof and there might be leaks, and said he offered to refund rent if they had to go to a hotel. Elliott said her hotel room costs were not covered.
Jollissaint also said his on-site handyman has been provided with rat poison at that location. Overall, he said he has three handymen and “we take care of our tenants.”
“When somebody brings up a problem, we address it,” he said.
Hendrix said that was not her experience. After waiting for help from Jollissaint, she called the city, the county and health departments. She learned the civil court system was the only way to enforce the state’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, but she didn’t have the means to sue Jollissaint.
Houck said the current system of laws is not easy to understand.
“It’s not clear,” he said. “Most people and renters know they have some rights, and if a landlord is doing something that’s clearly unfair, there’s probably a law against it. But then what do you do?”
The Residential Landlord-Tenant Act of 1973 is the state’s primary law that covers residential rental issues, including healthy living environments.
The act lays out what duties both the landlord and tenant have in maintaining the property and requires the tenant to notify the landlord in writing of perceived violations.
Those duties include complying with maintenance codes, maintaining structural components like roofs, floors and walls, keeping shared or common areas reasonably sanitary and providing a “reasonable program for the control of infestation by insects, rodents and other pests” except when the infestation is caused by the tenant.
If that does not happen and if tenants deliver written notice to the landlord, the law requires landlords to start fixing the problem in specific time frames.
If the problems are not fixed, tenants can terminate the rental agreement without further obligation or bring an action in court. However, filing a court case can be costly and confusing, and housing in Cowlitz County is scarce.
Lisa Waldvogel is a senior attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, a network of 175 attorneys statewide who provide civil legal assistance to low-income people in cases affecting basic human needs, including family safety and security, housing preservation, education advocacy, healthcare access and workers’ rights.
Each year, the Project opens on average more than 12,000 cases. Waldvogel is not representing Elliott or Hendrix and could not speak about their specific situations, she said.
When a landlord rents a unit, she said, they make an “unspoken promise that your home is safe to live in” called the warranty of habitability. If that turns out not to be the case, the landlord may have violated the warranty of habitability even if the lease doesn’t mention it, Waldvogel said.
Seventy percent of all low-income households experience at least one civil legal problem each year, she said, and nearly three-quarters of those do not get the legal help they need to solve their problems.
In Cowlitz County, 12.6% of the population, or about 14,000 people, live below the federal poverty line, according to 2019 U.S. Census data. That means about 9,800 local low-income people have a civil legal problem each year, and about 7,350 do not get legal help.
“Because we cannot provide services to everyone, we prioritize the types of cases that we can handle to those most in need of legal help and on matters that affect fundamental interests such as personal and family safety, homeownership and shelter protection, economic security and health care,” Waldvogel said.
Lori Bashor, executive director of Cowlitz Wahkiakum Legal Aid, said the nonprofit organization opened 354 cases in 2020. Nineteen of them were related to landlord/tenant or housing issues. Bashor said that’s lower than usual due to the COVID-19 eviction moratorium.
Those numbers likely will rise as evictions return because renters rarely prevail when a landlord wants them out — and most don’t even fight, said attorney Houck.
“Most evictions end because the tenant, for whatever reason, doesn’t make it into the courtroom for the hearing or to do the paperwork,” he said.
One of Houck’s colleagues tracked eviction court cases in King County, and found half end in default, which means the tenant didn’t respond to paperwork or show up in court.
“My sense is that that’s not by choice, there’s just a lot of barriers the tenants have to go through to understand what they need to do and do it really quickly,” Houck said. “Normal lawsuits take years and each step takes months, but evictions usually take days or weeks. It’s not a lot of time if you’re a renter trying to figure it out on your own.”
A growing population and low vacancy rates means “a perfect storm for vulnerable households,” said Gregg Colburn, assistant professor in the University of Washington’s Runstad Department of Real Estate.
Cowlitz County commissioners approved an agreement Tuesday with Lower Columbia CAP to distribute $6.1 million in rent and utility assistance t…
Cowlitz County’s apartment vacancy rate was 0.5%, according to the spring 2021 apartment market report from the Washington Center for Real Estate Research. That’s a fraction of the 7% to 8% considered healthy for the economy, according to the state Department of Commerce.
“We have a pretty severe housing crisis in this region and that manifests in a variety of ways,” Colburn said. “One is the visible homelessness problem that we have, but also there are many, many, many households that are really struggling, one, to find housing, and then if they have it, to afford the purchase or rental cost.”
Bar Association Attorney Houck said the tight market not only makes finding safe, healthy housing more difficult, but it also makes renters reluctant to ask for repairs.
“You have a lot at stake in a tight market,” Houck said.
Until a recent law change requiring just cause for evictions, “A landlord could basically tell you to move out in a month. Especially for clients I work with, it’s not realistic to move your home and find other housing in a month,” Houck said. “So that means for the renter asking for an important repair, it’s going to be pretty risky.”
A new law that went into effect May 10 requires landlords to give tenants a written notice with one of 17 good reasons for ending rental agreements and evicting tenants, such as failure to pay rent, or unlawful activity. Landlords no longer can refuse to renew a month-to-month agreement with a 20-day “no cause” termination notice.
Despite the changes, Jennifer Westerman, CEO of the Longview Housing Authority, said “issues regarding tenants and landlords are getting a little bit hotter.”
Longview renter Elliott said she feels the effects of the tight market. She was paying for her apartment with help from a Department of Housing and Urban Development program and worked with them to find a new place to use her rent voucher, but housing is limited.
The program provides vouchers renters can use to negotiate a lease with a private landlord. Elliot said she waited years to get the voucher and her apartment was a big next step for her.
“I’m a single mother on a fixed income and I just got my daughter back from (Child Protective Services),” she said. “That house was a stepping stone to getting her back.”
The voucher waiting list is closed due to insufficient funding, Westerman said, a situation faced by many other housing authorities.
For many of the people living at the Alabama Street homeless camp in Longview, there are numerous reasons why they don't stay at the county's two emergency shelters or one of several temporary housing programs.
Ultimately, the market defines the landlord-tenant relationship, Colburn said.
“As vacancy rates go down and rents go up … the power shifts to landlords and there just aren’t a lot of units,” he said. “Tenants are really stuck and it’s hard to push back when there are 20 other people who want this place. When vacancy rates go up, the power relationship shifts.”
Some areas experiencing dynamic population growth are keeping up with housing, Colburn said. But those places tend to be in the Sun Belt, where cities can sprawl.
“Part of that is they don’t have mountains and water, and generally speaking they’re sprawling cities so they don’t have urban growth boundaries and, generally speaking, the regulatory landscape is a little less restrictive,” Colburn said.
However, there are elements of those cities’ approaches that southwest Washington could learn from, he and Houck said, including:
- Changes in zoning or regulatory processes could allow people to build denser housing.
- Programs to help renters file health and safety complaints for free.
Cowlitz County Superior Court announced it will start a program to help prevent tenants from becoming homeless when the federal and state evic…
Seattle has such a program, through which the city sends a staff member out to do an inspection in the case of a suspected building or health code violation and issue a fine if the problem isn’t fixed in a certain timeline. However, the cost falls on the city, so this might not be a practical solution for smaller cities such as Longview, Houck said.
- A mediation program outside of the court system could help renters and landlords solve their differences. Houck said such programs exist in some parts of Washington and are popular in British Columbia.
The Cowlitz County Superior Court plans to launch a mediation program at the end of this month. The Eviction Resolution Program will use mediators to create realistic payment plans between landlords and tenants and help tenants access relief funds.
“This pandemic has been very challenging for tenants and landlords alike,” Presiding Judge Gary Bashor said in a statement. “We are optimistic that this program will assist tenants in maintaining their housing, avoiding potential homelessness and will help make the landlords whole.”
- A repair process for renters that runs parallel to the eviction process.
“Judges and appellate courts who have interpreted the laws and help shape them say eviction law is meant to do one thing quickly and cheaply: Let landlords force a renter out,” Houck said. “But there’s no counterpart to that for renters, no procedures that say the purpose of this is to help renters quickly and cheaply get a repair made, especially when it’s a safety issue.”
New York City has a process for that, Houck said. It allows a renter, with simple paperwork and no lawyer, to go to a local, lower level court and get in front of a judge.
“The judge hears both sides and then issues an order,” Houck said, perhaps a timeline for when the landlord needs to have the problem fixed.
- Laws that expand tenant protections, such as the law Washington just passed on just cause and another passed this year that gives low-income renters the right to legal counsel in eviction cases.
Houck said those laws could help empower tenants to ask for repairs they need, and those laws could have helped Hendrix, had they been in effect. The right to counsel law takes effect next year, while the just cause law took effect in May of this year, after Hendrix and Elliott had moved out.
“It will be a little less risky for them to demand repairs and try to advocate for themselves without worrying about the landlord ending their lease,” Houck said.
Few, if any, other states have passed similar laws, Houck said, though plenty of individual cities have. The right to counsel law guarantees people who receive public assistance or who have incomes at 200% or below the federal poverty level — $25,760 annually for individuals, $53,000 for a household of four — will have access to public attorneys at no cost during evictions.
Longview landlord Jollissaint said while he and his attorney work through the nuances of the new state laws, “the whole process of eviction is going to be much more difficult than it ever was before” and he’s not sure it will improve outcomes.
“You have to give them the opportunity to pay back rent,” he said. “I’m fine with that if they will do that, but I’m not convinced it will happen.”
When Hendrix first toured her apartment, she said many of the issues that ended up plaguing her were apparent, but Jollissaint promised to fix them before she moved in.
That didn’t happen, she said, and she ended up cleaning the apartment herself. She bought rat traps, wall patches and cleaning products for the mold, she said.
Eventually, she said rat traps were scattered throughout the house, especially in the kitchen and living room. She had to patch holes in the wall where rats chewed through, and the roof started to leak.
At the end of May 2020, she realized the bathtub and bathroom sink were not hooked up to anything under the apartment.
“We had free-flowing waste under our apartment,” she said.
When she told Jollissaint, she said he gave her an eviction notice alleging she violated the lease by making the house uninhabitable. Hendrix called the county, and the Environmental Health Department confirmed on June 9, 2020, there was water flowing under the house.
Environmental Health Manager Season Long said the department sent an enforcement letter June 10, 2020, and on June 22, 2020, got a response stating the plumbing was no longer in use and was being fixed.
Hendrix said Jollissaint hooked up plumbing underneath the apartment, but left it partly unfinished. Hendrix called the county again and reported it, along with the mold and rats.
Long said the department got another complaint about running water underneath the crawl space on Sept. 15, 2020, but inspections had been suspended because of poor air quality from wildfires. An inspection was performed Sept. 23, 2020.
“The inspector looked in the crawl space and could hear the water running, but could not see or hear it hitting the ground,” Long said. “The inspector did not go into the unit, but told the tenant they could contact building and planning if they felt the issue was structural.”
Mold and rodents “are harder things to address,” and Long usually refers people with those problems to the Northwest Justice Project.
“We live in a wet climate,” she said. Mold could come from improperly vented bathrooms, loose windows or a host of other sources. The department mostly provides educational materials about how to eliminate mold. Rats could be attracted by the habits of another tenant, she said.
Most people respond to the department’s instructions with voluntary compliance, Long said, even if the clean up takes a long time.
“As long as there’s a good faith effort, we try to work with them best we can,” she said.
For example, Long said there is a building permit issued for the roof of Hendrix’s and Elliott’s old apartment building, so “as far as compliance with us, we could say that’s them actively trying to address it.”
Jollissaint said he keeps his buildings up to code, and as most of his tenants are through the Longview Housing Authority, both tenants and a representative inspect apartments before move-in.
“I meet all of their requirements. Everything has to be up to code, even — and this one drives me crazy — the requirement that I have a CO2 detector in every apartment, even though I don’t have any gas appliances that give off CO2,” he said. “But the law says it, so I have them.”
Work left to do
Elliott and her daughter got into “a nice new place” recently, after living in a motel for several months after leaving the apartment in January 2021.
Hendrix and her family moved out in mid-December 2020 with the help of CORE. Life has been better since then for the two families, but they worry other families will face similar situations.
“Our CORE worker did an amazing job getting us this place and getting us the financing to move into this place,” Hendrix said. “She’s a rock star, but now I don’t want it to be forgotten.”
Houck said he and other lawyers will keep working to make sure renters do not get stuck in such situations, and while the new laws will help, there’s plenty left to do.
“I don’t think those laws are going to fix all the problems,” he said. “But those are big steps forward in the right direction.”
— Former TDN Reporter Mallory Gruben contributed to this story.