Lawyers talk renters’ rights

Lawyers talk renters rights

Tenant rights are a two-way street and Eastern students who opt to live off-campus must follow the law just as their landlords do.

“Tenants do have rights, people all have rights, but we also have obligations. What I do see are a lot of people who don’t understand the ramifications, that their actions will impact them later,” said attorney Eric Steven.

ASEWU and the government department co-sponsored a seminar in Tawanka for three attorneys to speak to students about their expertise in tenant law as well as answer any questions students might have about living off-campus.

“I thought it would be a really good idea to have this and educate people. My first time renting I didn’t even sign a contract,” said event coordinator Hawa Hussein, “I hear about a lot of people that don’t know their rights and get in trouble with landlords. Sometimes landlords think that just because they’re in a higher authority that the landlord is always right, so [students] just give in.”

Seattle-based attorney Evan L. Loeffler, author of the “Real Estate Closing Deskbook” and of multiple landlord-tenant law sections in the “Washington Lawyers Practice Manual,” explained that one of the most important things tenants need to do no matter the circumstances is pay their rent.

“Where tenants are frequently shooting themselves in the foot, is to avail yourself of any of these remedies you have to be current with your rent,” said Loeffler.

“The first thing that usually happens is the tenant sends some letter that basically says, ‘I’m not paying my rent until you fix this.’ … Next thing you know they’re getting a notice that says you’ve got three days. … The tenant says, ‘No, I’m not going to do that, I have 90 days.’ About a week later the sheriff will be out there saying its time to go,” said Loeffler.

Tenants walking out just before the end of their lease is something Steven said he has also noticed among some younger renters.

Skipping out on a lease just before it is due to expire can mean a tarnished rental history and in the future make it harder to rent from another landlord should they decide to screen their renters.

“They think they can walk out on their last month’s rent and not have a consequence. … Typically you can end up with a judgment against you if you walk out on the last month’s rent, plus attorney’s fees, which can be two to three times higher than the rent cost,” said Steven.

“Society works when people play the game and are concerned about their liberties, when they are concerned about their credit history and their future.”

Timing is also never an excuse for a tenant to get out of being evicted. Families with children in the winter or at Christmas time and students with finals do not have to be given any special treatment if a lease contract is broken.

“I do end up doing a lot of evictions during the winter months, and it just breaks my heart because I have kids. They gave their kids Christmas in December and then homelessness in January,” said Steven.

Loeffler recalled being a young student living in Spokane and studying for finals. Out of the blue, his landlord informed him he had just a few days to find a new place to live.

“There’s always two sides to a story. My landlord came to me … and said, ‘I’ve decided to sell the house I want you to move out by the end of the week.’ I told her, ‘I think you need to give me notice, until the end of the month.’ She said, ‘Well if you’re not out by the end of the week I’m just going to lock the doors,’” Loeffler said, “It’s not easy to study for your exams when you’ve got that going on. So I had to write a letter, I learned about the law and told her, ‘No,’ and I went to school with a change of clothes in my bag.”

Steven suggests that when a tenant feels that their rights have been encroached upon by another tenant or the landlord, the best thing to do is start by giving written notice to the landlord. This gives them the opportunity to fix the problem before the situation escalates.

“Be smart, … keep a copy of that, how you served it, and have someone help you serve it,” said Steven.

“The Northwest Justice Project has a strong presence throughout the state. They’re very well trained and they do a nice job. If you have a problem, another great thing to do is to crack the code and go to RCW 5918 and see exactly what your expectations are.”