My Standoff with a Landlord After I Kept Getting Rent-Increase Notices in Violation of My Lease
My life hasn't been all cupcakes and limousines since my article "The Rent Hike" was published in The Stranger last January. That piece described what happened when my apartment building at 20th and Madison was bought by a new company, and the new property managers, Pacific Living Properties (PLP), began to remodel and serve alarmingly steep rent increases to tenants, in some cases doubling the rents. In the months after that piece was published, all the tenants would move out.
Except for me. The days went weirdly by, jammed with laborers and roving renovation entrepreneurs. Nights were especially rough. The building is enormous, and all the gutted units gave it a lonesome, postapocalyptic vibe. But I stuck around anyway, waiting out my 13-month lease.
My rent was fixed under its protection, but that didn't stop PLP from administering a series of rent-increase notices that I understood to be in violation of tenant laws. Every couple months, I'd get a notice taped to my door or delivered by e-mail. (I didn't know this then, but to have legal bearing, rent-increase notices must be served in person, or delivered with verifiable mail receipts. I don't believe any of mine were. I certainly don't remember signing for anything.) There were three notices in all, slating monthly $480 to $580 rent increases to begin before the expiration of my lease, and/or the notices failed to provide the proper 60-day notice, as required when housing costs increase 10 percent or more, as specified in Seattle's Rental Agreement Regulation Ordinance. As I mentioned in my article last January, PLP rescinded the first increase after I mailed them a copy of my lease. The next two rent-hike notices occurred after that article was published. I'd contact PLP apartment manager Lorrie Bowen and/or regional manager Jason Alldredge explaining why I believed the notices were in violation, and neither would respond, so I continued to pay my previously agreed-upon rent by the first of each month.
Perhaps this all wasn't as bad as I thought it was, PLP CEO Jeff Miller told me during a face-to-face interview after I'd moved out. The unanswered e-mails or phone calls to Bowen and Alldredge demonstrated the virtues of his company, he said: "When you showed them they made a mistake, they did not try to force the issue. They rescinded it, by not responding."
Miller's view aside, I found it profoundly disquieting to get repeatedly hit up at random and then left in the dark. Returning home from work every day, I braced myself for whatever might be taped to my apartment door. Shit would only continue to get real. Bowen confronted me on my building's lawn one afternoon, saying the company decided I owed them money, and a three-day pay-or-vacate notice was looming. "We've given you three rent increases, and you've ignored them all," she said, from what I remember.
"But none have been legal," I said.
I felt both rushed and clogged inside, trying to control that conversation. I showed her a notice and pointed to the effective date, slated to begin before my lease's expiration. "I'm just the messenger," she said again and again, suggesting that my proof made no difference. I remember calling Alldredge that evening and getting no response. I then e-mailed Bowen and Alldredge the next day; again, no response.
So I waited, because I didn't know what else to do. The promised three-day pay-or-vacate notice arrived a couple weeks later. The balance showed $1,010. I was sure I was fucked, with only two options: pay them the money or pack up everything I own in three days and get out.
Opting to do nothing was not a choice. Even though I believed PLP was in the wrong, ignoring this notice would have been deeply reckless. If a three-day pay-or-vacate notice is properly served, property managers can file an eviction action against you, also known as an "unlawful detainer," with very little evidence, said Jim Metz, the City of Seattle's owner/tenant assistance supervisor at the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). This can suggest you've failed to pay rent and you've failed to respond to a three-day pay-or-vacate notice. "Once it's filed in court, this becomes public record," said Metz. "It's so deadly to tenants because the record doesn't go away, even if the case is dismissed. The fact that it was even filed becomes a mark against your current tenancies." If you were applying for apartments, this eviction summons "would appear during screening processes, and in a tough rental market, you'd probably lose good opportunities," potentially confining one's living options to sublets or bad locations or seedy apartments.
Being a Capitol Hill–based renter with no long-term home-owning prospects, such a filing could be my doom. Immediately after I received the notice, I spoke with DPD staff, who corresponded with Bowen directly and requested the notices' proofs of service. From my understanding, Bowen claimed she'd sent them all through certified mail, though, again, I don't remember signing for them. Bowen did not produce the receipts, and soon after, she rescinded the three-day pay-or-vacate notice, left me a voice-mail apology, and fully refunded my security deposit.
I moved to another Capitol Hill apartment, a two-bedroom I now share with a roommate. It's smaller, but the rent is the same as it was in my old one-bedroom, so I can afford to stay on the hill (for now). I'm relieved I escaped PLP and their constant hassles, though I was compelled to hear their side. Bowen declined to be interviewed for this article. Alldredge did not respond to my voice mail requesting an interview. But as I said, CEO Jeff Miller did talk to me, and he went so far as to say: "I think based on what I've heard about your experience, I can understand why it'd be negative. I apologize for that. You shouldn't have gone through it."
"I felt your company was bullying me," I said.
"If that's in fact what happened, that's not the same as bullying somebody... What I would say is [my company] made a series of mistakes, but your rent was never actually increased, and you chose to move out. Were you charged the higher rent? No. In the end, they did not charge you the higher rent."
Miller is correct, in a way. I did move out on my own accord, even if it's because I was exhausted by the repeated and powerfully stressful sessions with PLP that threatened my housing and left me scrambling to prove my innocence or face serious consequences. Although companies like PLP can't always collect money from sloppily administered rent increases and verbal warnings and three-day pay-or-vacate notices, they're still free to administer as many as they want: "There's nothing practical that would stop it. It doesn't serve tenants well, but it's not against the law," said Metz.
"What would you recommend for tenants in a similar situation?" I asked.
"If you get into a dispute with your landlord that could potentially threaten your housing, you need to address it immediately. Don't assume an internet search is going to turn up the right answers. Call us. If I knew about us, I'd call us," said Metz. He's at 615-0808.