More and more Washington tenants are being overbilled for damages, attorneys say, and there’s little tenants can do about it

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As a single mother of four children Losing her apartment was hard enough for Natasha Pabon. But then came another brutal blow: $3,500 in damages and other fees from the property manager.

It was an expense 35-year-old Pabon – who was evicted because of her daughter’s conflict with a neighbor – could not afford. Not only did she forfeit her $1,155 security deposit, but the property manager at Olympia’s Fern Ridge Apartments billed her for things she felt she shouldn’t have covered, like replacing blinds and painting cabinets . She was particularly upset that they charged $300 for “general cleaning,” even though Pabon, who works as a cleaner, knew the apartment was immaculate. According to documents Pabon provided to InvestigateWest, they also charged her nearly $900 for “attorneys’ fees,” though nothing was filed in court. (Fern Ridge did not return a message requesting comment on this article.)

But Pabon has few avenues to prove these charges are unreasonable. Housing providers and landlords argue that Washington’s current system works largely as intended, allowing disputes to be settled in small claims courts.

This route would require Pabon to take the time to file a complaint and attend a hearing. Then – probably for the first time – she has to argue convincingly against a landlord or housing association.

“It’s just ridiculous how it all turned out,” says Pabon. “They want to kick you out and then put you in an even worse situation.”

Renters advocates argue that Washington’s law does not adequately protect renters from being billed for improper damages that can leave tenants in debt and hamper their efforts to find a new home. They tried last term to change the state law to better clarify what landlords can charge, but were unsuccessful.

But they say there is an urgent need to protect tenants from improper claims, especially now amid a perfect storm of low vacancy rates and rising evictions after a two-year moratorium.

This April, 126 evictions were filed in King County — an increase of nearly 1,400% from the 8 filings in April 2020.

Terri Anderson, statewide policy director for the Tenants Union of Washington, says it’s “one of our most frequent calls to our tenant hotline.” And Scott Crain, an attorney for the nonprofit Northwest Justice Project, which offers renters free legal advice, says they hear from renters who deal with improper damage claims “all the time.”

“People really don’t get their deposit back these days,” says Crain. “It’s a real, troublesome nationwide problem for renters.”

DEFINE WEAR

Once renters move out, Washington housing providers have 21 days to return the security deposit. If they withhold any portion of it or seek reimbursement for damage costs in excess of the deposit amount, they must provide a “full and specific” statement explaining why, under the state’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act. You cannot charge tenants for “normal wear and tear from the ordinary use of the premises”.

But the “normal wear and tear” standard is not specifically defined in state law. That can create confusion between landlords and tenants, says Sarah Nagy, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services.

Do scuffs on the carpet meet this definition? What about dirty drain pans or failed lightbulbs?

The lack of clarity in Washington, Nagy argues, opens the door for bad actors to prey on low-income renters.

“It is entirely up to each landlord to determine what the legitimate claim for damages is,” says Nagy. “And you’ll need to go to an independent arbitrator, like a small claims court, for clarity on this.”

Natasha Pabon in front of her former home in Olympia. (Dan DeLong/Investigate West)


However, going to the small claims court is a time-consuming hurdle for many tenants. Although attorneys are not licensed in small claims courts, renters can feel defeated when they sue a landlord or property manager in front of a judge.

Crain of the Northwest Justice Project says he has a hard time advising renters to take improper charges to court because “everyone has a different definition” of wear and tear.

“You can’t predict what will happen if you go to court, which is one of the failings of the law,” says Crain. “You want predictability.”

But if the tenant can’t pay, the other option isn’t much better. If the housing provider sends the damage costs to collection agencies, it can seriously affect a tenant’s ability to find a new apartment, as they would show up on any routine credit check.

Of course, some tenants successfully fight questionable allegations in court. Still, experience can weigh heavily on them.

Robert Elon Mix, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran and diabetic, was homeless when a $5,000 bill for damage to the home he was evicted from was sent to a collection agency. The apartment complex where he had lived had changed hands and would not allow Mix to pay rent in two separate checks based on when he received his Social Security and Veterans Affairs.

“There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t get some shit from these people,” says Mix.

Mix contacted Crain of the Northwest Justice Project, who helped him win a case that reduced claims to zero damages after arguing that the company discriminated against Mix because of his disability.

But losing his apartment, being harassed by collections, and being wrestled in court brought back Mix’s depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which he had long battled since the war.

“And it hasn’t gotten any better,” he says.

BILL FAILED IN THE LEGISLATION

Mix was one of several people to testify in support of State House Bill 1300, introduced in 2021 by State MP My-Linh Thai, D-Bellevue, aimed at preventing landlords from levying improper damages.

The bill clarified “normal wear and tear” as damage due to aging or deterioration caused by simple living, and clarified that deposits generally cannot be withheld for things like carpet cleaning or replacement of lighting fixtures, appliances, appliances and furnishings if whose condition had not been documented at the start of the rental period. It also requires landlords to provide receipts for any work they charge tenants for.

“The effect would be to clarify what a landlord can ask for before the parties are forced to incur the time and expense of a small claims court,” says Nagy.

But HB 1300 has achieved nothing in each of the last two legislatures. Other aspects of the bill that they felt were impractical were initially vehemently contested by homebuyers, such as a requirement for a damage assessment to be made shortly before the move-out date because, during an inspection, existing furniture or wall hangings could hide damage.

“Rep. Thai’s proposal poses logistical challenges and ultimately creates the potential for a contentious landlord-tenant split when there is otherwise a good relationship,” said Cory Brewer, vice president of housing operations at Windermere Property Management, who testified against the bill.

Pabon, the mother in Olympia, found a new home on the condition that she pay a higher deposit because of the damage caused by her previous tenant.

But all this, along with the fees just to fill out applications for a new apartment, completely depleted their savings.

“It just means that in the end there’s nothing left,” says Pabon.

So she is already trying to build up her savings for the next move.


FEATURED PICTURE: Following her eviction, Natasha Pabon, 35, of Olympia, faced a second blow: $3,500 in property manager’s fees for damages and other charges. (Dan Delong/Investigate West)

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent, non-profit news agency dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Visit www.invw.org/newsletter to sign up for weekly updates.

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