Last Wednesday, the manager of the Baldwin Apartments in Ballard vaguely threatened tenants with a 10-day comply or vacate notice in the middle of a pandemic for posting Black Lives Matter signs in the building's stairwell windows. Posting the signs violates the lease, manager Cameron Baldwin warned, which prohibits tenants from using "the windows, doors, balcony, or ledges for any signage whatsoever."
"I've just gotten word that there are two new 'Black Lives Matter' signs in the east hall windows, to replace the one I removed yesterday. Again, to whoever is doing this, this is a clear violation of the lease," Baldwin wrote in an email to tenants. "You do not have the right to cover someone else's property with your political propaganda. The front of the building belongs to everyone, so for that reason it needs to remain austere. Please be advised, if I find out who is responsible, I have the option of issuing a 10-day notice. A 10-day is a Washington State legal notice which is prelude to an eviction, and a mark on your rental history. If anyone sees someone putting up signage in the hallways, please let me know."
After the manager sent that email, the two signs were replaced by four Black Lives Matter signs, which prompted another email:
"Black Lives Matter signs are every bit as undesirable as Trump signs, communist flags, confederate flags, Nazi flags, anarchist flags, Antifa flags, ISIS flags etc..." Baldwin wrote. "There's a reason Cornell has a rule prohibiting signs in windows and balconies. We need to keep the front of the building apolitical, so as not to attract any unwanted attention. We already have some graffiti on the front sidewalk. One tenant doesn't have the right to risk bringing bad energy to the property. And I need to be able to lease units unimpeded. If you can't respect a contract, at least have some respect for the other tenants."
The manager said the graffiti on the sidewalk read, "DEFUND SPD 50%"
The signs are "currently only in the common stairwell windows," but the landlord wouldn't allow the signs in unit windows or in other common-area widows, either, he said.
Baldwin has "never seen any right-wing signs or flags at the property," and said he'd "never had anyone request to put up signs or flags, they just appear."
One of the tenants in the building, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, called the situation "very disheartening."
"I strongly believe that we should be allowed to put up signs regardless of the lease. Many buildings have the same policy, but it is not enforced especially during such a revolution," the tenant added, referring to the recent BLM uprisings in Seattle and across the country.
Another tenant took exception to the manager comparing Black Lives Matter signs to Nazi symbols and Confederate flags, and was horrified to hear him describe BLM signs as "political propaganda."
"Affirming the importance of Black life is not political propaganda. Valuing human life is not political," this person wrote.
Baldwin's comments were "racist and unacceptable," the tenant added.
"Black people in this country have faced oppression for centuries and continue to face barriers to accessing wealth and freedom," the tenant continued. "Black Americans die at the hands of white police who murder with impunity. During a national movement in protest of widespread murder, putting up a 'Black Lives Matter' sign should not be a source of dispute or controversy."
"The point I was trying to get across is that there are many political ideologies, and we do not want to attract the ire of anyone who disagrees with them," Baldwin clarified in a follow-up email. "An apartment building is not a private home. It should be a neutral space so it is safe for all."
Yet another tenant pointed out that the same clause in the lease has been violated in other ways without, to this person's knowledge, the threat of a 10-day notice. The section prohibits tenants from leaving "dust mops, rugs, tablecloths and clothing...in any of the public areas or any window, door deck or landing." But this tenant said there is "one rug outside right now rolled up on someone's balcony, and a couple days ago a bunch of sheets or carpets [were] drying on another balcony."
Edmund Witter, managing attorney of the King County Bar Association's Housing Justice Project, said he sees this sort of situation "on occasion."
He said tenants don't have a "right" to put up stuff in windows, since the First Amendment doesn't apply to private entities. But he said he had "a hard time seeing" how a court could enforce a 10-day notice in this situation, as he didn't see how a couple BLM signs could constitute a "material breach of the renter agreement," especially in a multifamily building such as the Baldwin.
"There are certainly some legal grey areas," Witter said. "Maybe a court might think the no-signage clause is a material term of the tenancy, but given public policy in this area, I have a hard time thinking a court would enforce it absent some additional evidence that the signage is actually obstructing the pathways or creating a dangerous environment for tenants."
Witter also pointed out that the threat of a 10-day notice right now violates Governor Jay Inslee's eviction moratorium, which was extend until at least October 15. The relevant section reads, "Landlords, property owners, and property managers are prohibited from serving or enforcing, or threatening to serve or enforce, any notice requiring a resident to vacate any dwelling or parcel of land occupied as a dwelling, including but not limited to an eviction notice, notice to pay or vacate, notice of unlawful detainer, notice of termination of rental, or notice to comply or vacate."