Many tenants in Spokane feel powerless to speak up against their landlords, especially if they live in substandard housing.
On Wednesday Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke gave them a forum to speak out. At the Northeast Community Center, she gathered representatives of social service and legal agencies to answer questions from tenants.
On two pillars in a downstairs room, she posted lists of items that tenants sometimes complain about and asked them to rate the problems most acute in their lives. Rent increases was the number one complaint.
A speaker named Jeremy, who said he moved from Seattle five years ago because he couldn’t afford to live there anymore, moved to Westview Manor on the South Hill, where a new owner recently took possession of the building.
“The first day of the new ownership, we got a rent increase of $475-a-month and we had 30 days to come up with the new rent or move," Jeremy said.
He took the story to a local TV station, which led to tenants getting an extra month to adjust to the increase or get some financial help to move to another place.
“Since I’ve been in Spokane, which is a little more than five years, rent has almost doubled,” he said.
Other tenants talked about the number two complaint: non-responsive landlords.
Monica Tittle shared a story about being homeless, until she found a room at a downtown apartment building, not knowing it was a place where released sex offenders live.
“I was in a very low, beyond low, standard apartment that had no way of closing my door. I had no electricity on my floor half the time, no running water. We had no heat, no air. Due to the fact that it was supposed to be a secure building and it was not, my ex was able to get in and beat and rape me for two days,” Tittle said.
She said she went to a city council meeting to share her story and found herself being evicted later.
Kate Burke told the crowd that the city has moved slowly to help tenants, much slower than she’d like. It’s been a heavy lift, she says.
“So as you heard the story from Monica about the New Washington apartments, we can’t shut them down, we can’t do anything about the lack of heat, we can’t do anything about the lack of electricity, because we don’t have quality standards for housing in our great city,” Burke said.
She says the city is developing minimum quality standards for housing.
Terri Anderson from the Tenants Union of Washington State says half of Spokane’s people rent. Two-thirds of whites own their own homes, two-thirds of people of color rent their homes. She urges people to take charge of their situations.
“You can’t always find a lawyer. You might not always be able to pay for a lawyer. And we do have some non-profit legal offices here, but they have capacity and so they can only take so many cases and they have to prioritize and limit what they take. Often times it’s up to you as tenants to take action yourself to get things done,” Anderson said.
Anderson says her organization would like to see adopt a law that requires landlords to cite justifiable reasons before evicting tenants.
“Because, as the law currently stands, a tenant just gets a 20-day notice for no reason and they have to move,” she said.
Kate Burke says, last year, she was required to move when her landlord told her he was going to sell the house. She said, because of her status and ability to pay a bit more, she was able to quickly find a better house for her. She later found out the home in which she originally lived was never sold. For that reason, and others, she says, she’s become especially sensitive to tenants’ issues.