Welcome back to Maintenance Request, a regular column where you email me with your questions about renting in Seattle/King County and I try to get you answers. If you have a question, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask me anything about bad landlords, finding a roommate, dealing with noisy neighbors, pets in apartments, etc. Anything about renting in the region. Please specify whether you’re in Seattle or elsewhere in Washington since the answer may vary based on your city’s laws. Remember, I’m not a lawyer. It’s always best to talk your situation over with a tenant advocate or a lawyer. You can find one using one of the services listed here. On to this week's questions:
I had a question about tenant screening: The landlord for the apartment my friends and I are looking at asked that we send him a link to our Facebook profiles. He said he's looking for "red flags" to disqualify people before he starts going through the applications. Is this legal? This seems like it could be an opening to all kinds of discriminatory rental practices and is kind of an invasion of privacy. Do we have any recourse? If it makes a difference, we're located in Bellingham, not Seattle, so things may be a bit different here.
The thought of a landlord perusing your Facebook profiles in search of personal information or an old beer bong picture from your college days may sound as creepy as, say, mood manipulation and the willy nilly sharing of your data. But it’s probably something landlords (and bosses and Tinder dates and significant others’ parents) are already doing and it’s probably legal. Washington offers some protections against discrimination in housing based on things like race and gender. Soon, how you pay your rent will also be protected. But there is no explicit ban on this kind of scoping out of tenants or even on picking tenants based on a “gut check.” Seattle’s effort to curb this with a first-in-time rule has so far not survived legal challenges.
Still, you’re not the only one who thinks it sounds like it could lead to all sorts of bullshit. Scott Crain, at attorney at the Northwest Justice Project who has worked on housing issues, says this is a bad idea for landlords. “It opens that landlord up to a claim that they refused a tenancy for a discriminatory reason, rather than based on objective criteria that the tenant can understand and that would be more likely to indicate whether that tenant will be suitable and able to pay rent during the period of the rental agreement,” Crain says.
Crain offers an example: In Seattle, landlords cannot discriminate against prospective tenants based on their political ideology. If a tenant was advocating online for certain policies—like, say, rent control—and a landlord rejected them, it could possibly be a violation of Seattle law. Landlords might say that they are looking for evidence of illegal drug use, or undisclosed pets, or some other thing,” Crain says, “but it really introduces an element of subjectivity that invites discrimination in my view.”
You may have to send the link, but that doesn’t mean you can’t first lock down as much of your stuff as possible. Here's some good advice on how to do that.
Dear Heidi, I live in an 8-unit apartment building and my landlord splits the water bill evenly between us. I’ve never had to pay water/sewer as a renter in Seattle before, but it seems high — usually between $150 - $200 per unit per billing cycle. There are also a couple of washing machines the basement, and these costs $1.50 per use. I realized yesterday while searching for quarters that she is essentially charging us for water twice — both through the water bill and through the $1.50 washing machine charge. Is this ethical? And, more importantly, is it legal?
All Landlords Are Bastards
Happy May Day.
Unfortunately, your landlord isn’t breaking the law here. And if you questioned them, they’d probably tell you the washing machine charge helps pay for maintenance of the machines.
But if you’re surprised by the cost of your utilities, it’s worth making some calls. Like I explained last time, Seattle City Light offers counseling to figure out why your bill is so high and advice on how to reduce your energy use. Be sure to understand your rights about utility billing, so you know your landlord isn't overcharging you. (If you’re in Seattle, read this too.)
Kate Dunphy, deputy director of the Tenants Union, advises this could be a chance for organizing, if you’re into that kind of thing. “A tenant association might have more luck arguing that laundry should be free than an individual tenant would,” Dunphy says. Get together with your neighbors and raise some hell. Here are some tips on doing that.
So if I just got a rent increase notice from the guy who just bought my building slipped under my door but it has someone else's name on it. Do I have to honor it? It has my apartment number in the heading but is addressed to someone else's name.
While it would be feel incredibly good to never pay this rent increase and get to tell your landlord, “Well, it wasn’t addressed to me you moron!!!!” that’s probably not the best course of action here. While I know that’s not nearly as satisfying, try sending a letter like this to let your landlord know they messed up. You can also try filing a complaint with Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections to review the increase. In cases where a landlord violates the law, they have the ability to require them to rescind the notice of a rent increase. (Reminder: In Seattle, your landlord has to give you 30 days’ notice of a rent increase and 60 days’ notice if the increase is 10 percent or more of your rent.)
Why not just refuse to pay? Well, even in cases where your landlord gives you an illegal rent increase—if they fail to give you enough notice, for example, or raise the rent while there are substantial housing code violations—not paying puts you in a vulnerable spot. If you refuse to pay, your landlord could begin eviction proceedings against you. You may win the fight in court, but eviction suits show up on your record regardless of the outcome. This can make it harder to get rental housing in the future. The Tenants Union says refusing to pay your rent, even when you think you’re in the right, is a "risky choice." If you want to try to take your landlord to small claims court over an illegal rent increase, the TU and others recommend writing “payment under protest” on your check.
Have a question about renting? Email me at email@example.com.