After several residents at the Rialto Court apartments on Capitol Hill complained too loudly about a bedbug infestation in the building—circulating a letter advising tenants on how to file a complaint with the city—they were told to shut up, or get out. Phillips Real Estate, which owns the building, sent several tenants "comply or quit" memos. One tenant was told she was "in direct violation of your lease" because she "posted notices to tenants." The letter was titled: "10 Day Notice to Comply or Quit Premises."
Amber—a 27-year-old Rialto resident who requested we not print her last name—says she received a "bullying" letter, demanding she take care of the bedbug infestation in her unit, or move out in 10 days.
When Amber moved from her third-floor Rialto apartment into a second-floor studio in early August, she quickly found herself covered in bug bites. "I had 37 bug bites on my body within two weeks," she says. When Amber complained to Rialto's management, she says they told her they'd had problems with bedbugs before, and that throwing away her mattress and linens would get rid of the problem. Amber says she got the feeling management didn't believe her, so early one morning she caught one of the small red bedbugs. "It was about the size of a ladybug. The manager told me it was my responsibility to take care of it."
On September 11, after another tenant on the second floor of the building started getting bitten, Amber's neighbor Jennifer—who also requested her last name not be used—circulated a note urging Rialto residents to contact Phillips Real Estate. "I live next door to these people; I really didn't want [bedbugs] coming my way," she says. Six days later, Jennifer received a letter from Phillips, instructing her to either quit sending out memos or move out in 10 days.
According to Siobahn Ring, director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, Phillips's response to Jennifer's call to action was illegal. "The City of Seattle passed an ordinance that tenants have the right to organize," Ring says, citing Jennifer's memo as a form of tenant organization. "Violations of the right to organize are illegal and could be prosecuted by the city attorney's office." However, she says, "generally they're not."
In an e-mail to The Stranger, Phillips Real Estate says the bedbug infestation was limited to one mattress, and that Amber and Jennifer "were not evicted or threatened with eviction." Phillips also claims an exterminator found no signs of bedbugs after Amber moved out.
Alan Justad, spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development, says the city has contacted the building owners and they're preparing to send out a notice of violation, and the Rialto's owners will be responsible for fumigating the building.