When Ramona Brown’s landlord increased her rent last year, she didn’t know he may have been breaking the law. If she had, she might not be sitting in her living room now contemplating ways to attach her oxygen machine to a car battery so she can continue to use it when she becomes homeless this week.
Brown lives in a nondescript two-story apartment building in South Park. Mold covers her ceilings. Packing tape holds the kitchen cabinets closed—an effort to keep rats from coming through the wall and into the apartment. She uses red toolbox to block rats in another room. Brown's headaches and breathing got worse when she tried sleeping in one of her bedrooms, which is filled with mold. So she and her partner sleep in the living room, which is less moldy, instead.
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A recent city inspection of Brown’s apartment found the same conditions. Inspectors found 63 housing code violations. According to Brown, these problems aren’t new. She says the apartment has been wrought with hazards since soon after she moved in in 2010. If that’s the case, Brown’s landlord, Yeshiwas Egezew, violated the law when he raised the rent last year. Under a city law passed in 2016, landlords cannot raise rent on apartments with substantial housing code violations like moisture that causes mold, defective heat, or unsafe electrical wiring.
Reached by phone, Egezew denied the apartment has been in its current condition for years. “When she moved in, it was clean and nice, but the problem [is] she [doesn’t] keep it clean,” Egezew said. When he raised the rent last year, he says the apartment was “in good condition.”
In a binder, Brown keeps copies of her lease, rent increases, and handwritten notes about times she has contacted the landlord requesting repairs. Notes from 2012, 2013, and 2016 say Brown contacted Egezew about mold, cockroaches, ants, and a faulty refrigerator. “[These] things are making me more sick,” says a note dated July 2012. Notices show rent increases from $725 in 2010 to $805 in 2015, $865 in 2016, and $925 in 2017. “It’s not up to standard and he wants money, money, money,” she says.
Brown lives off $725 per month in social security. She has multiple health issues, including asthma and diabetes, and sometimes uses an oxygen machine. Brown's partner, Jose Mendoza, recently lost his job at a nursery after an injury. Despite help from family and organizations like the Chief Seattle Club, they’ve had trouble keeping up with the rent. Egezew has now moved to evict them. According to court documents, Brown is behind $1,450. She has agreed to leave the apartment by Thursday. Egezew said he intends to follow the city’s orders to address code violations once Brown moves out.
In a city with rising costs, tenants teetering on the edge of eviction is a common story. But Brown’s situation also illustrates the limits of Seattle’s tenant-friendly laws.
Despite the 2016 law banning rent increases at substandard buildings like Brown’s, plenty of tenants don’t know about their right to challenge rent hikes in those situations. Brown says she had no idea about the law when she got her last rent increase in 2017. (The Stranger has asked the city for the number of complaints filed under this renters protection ordinance and will update this post if we hear back.)
There are also limited resources for low-income tenants living in conditions like Brown’s to get out of those conditions.
After a “healthy home checkup” at Brown’s apartment, Casey Coulombe, lung health program coordinator for the American Lung Association in Washington, wrote that the unit had “large sections of mold” and showed signs of a rodent infestation. City inspectors visited Brown’s apartment twice in April. They issued to the landlord a long list of code violations, including ant and rodent infestation, missing smoke detectors, defective appliances, and conditions throughout the apartment allowing mold to accumulate. (The city does not directly regulate mold itself, but can enforce conditions like leaks that cause mold.) The city ordered repairs by May 25.
Still, these conditions were not enough to get Brown moving assistance from the city. The City of Seattle does offer some tenants in substandard conditions emergency funding to help move. But according to city law, tenants can only access that emergency relocation assistance if their apartment is so dilapidated—if there’s no heat in the winter, for example, or no running water—that the city issues an emergency order. Those orders often mean the building must be vacated and closed. At Brown’s apartment, city inspectors found that the conditions could be fixed without closing the apartment.
That leaves Brown and Mendoza with an eviction order and little money to find a new place to live. So they plan to sleep in their SUV.
Brown argues the city or landlord should help pay her moving expenses because of the conditions of the apartment. “Something to help me,” she says, “not just leave me in the streets.”
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections said inspectors did not find any conditions that posed an imminent "threat to the health or safety of the occupants or the public" at Brown's apartment.
Instead, Brown has been calling around to shelters and sanctioned tent encampments, but has yet to find a place to go. Some services are full and others won’t accommodate an oxygen machine, she says. She’s worried about having access to a bathroom and shower, about being safe while homeless, and about the effect sleeping in a vehicle will have on her mental and physical health.
“It’s started stressing me. I’m feeling fear, anger, confusion, headaches,” she says. “Thinking about it, I just get blank.”