As Seattle continues to see daily and even hourly protests in the streets against police brutality, last week a property manager for Cornell & Associates again threatened to issue a 10-day comply or vacate notice to two tenants who displayed Black Lives Matter signs in their windows.
Though the lease for the Glen Ellyn Apartments in Ballard bars any signage "whatsoever in windows or balconies," Anna and Nicholas Brown, who live together in the building, put up two BLM signs in the middle of July. One of the signs read, "Black Lives Always Matter," and the other read, "Say Their Names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Charleena Lyles."
A few weeks later, Nicholas said, property manager Cameron Baldwin asked the tenants in an email to remove the signs, citing the lease violation. "The face of the building belongs to everyone, so we need to keep it looking clean and neutral," he wrote. The Browns complied, but they put up the signs again a couple weeks later.
Last week, Baldwin sent another email wherein he reiterated the requirement to keep a "clean and neutral" face on the building.
"Riding my bike past the building today, I saw that you have the BLM signs back in your windows," he wrote. "If diplomatically asking you to not put signs in the windows, and referring you to the section in the lease that prohibits signs doesn't work, then I have to resort to using the threat of a 10-day notice."
He continued: "A 10-day notice is a Washington State legal notice which gives a tenant ten days to either comply with the lease, or vacate the premises...Please remove the signs immediately. If I see them again I will be forced to issue a 10-day."
After reading that message, the Browns took down their BLM signs again.
Baldwin didn't respond to a request for comment. I'll update this post if I hear back.
Last July Baldwin issued a slightly vaguer eviction threat at a different Ballard apartment complex. In that instance, Baldwin said BLM signs or any "political" signs might draw unwanted attention to the property. He pointed to graffiti on the sidewalk outside the building that read, "DEFUND SPD 50%."
The Browns said their signs have been up "with no issues."
Anna said she and Nicholas decided to put the signs back up in the first place for several reasons. The video of George Floyd dying with a police officer's knee on his neck, she said, changed her "relationship with [her] blackness."
"As a person of color, I feel alone sometimes trying to reconcile with the confusion and guilt in needing to do more," she said. "When our property manager Cameron threatened with me with eviction over my signs, I felt alone and small again."
"It shocked me that he took such an aggressive stance and equated the signs to tarnishing the image of the apartment," she added. "My Black Lives Matter signs, and being able to display them, mean a lot to me. They put matters into perspective and represent simple truths. On our sign, there are the names of George Floyd, Charleena Lyles, and Breonna Taylor; their names ground me and inspire me to be better."
Nicholas, who is white, took issue with Baldwin's explanation for the sign ban in the lease. "[Neutrality] perpetuates a status quo by which black people can be systematically oppressed and executed," he said. "In light of this, Cameron's assertion that we must keep the face of the building 'neutral' is to say that we as both a society and as tenants must remove any duty toward upholding the human rights of our neighbors."
Though the Browns took down their signs, two other neighbors in the Glen Ellyn have since put up their own BLM signs. Nicholas also painted "BLM" on his truck's tailgate and parked it in the apartment complex. Baldwin has yet to say anything about either display, Anna said.
The last time I asked Edmund Witter, managing attorney of the King County Bar Association's Housing Justice Project, about the legal issues both the tenants and the landlord might run into in this situation, he said he had "a hard time seeing" how a court could enforce a 10-day notice given the difficulty of establishing that displaying BLM signs constitute a "material breach of the renter agreement," especially in an apartment complex.
He also pointed out that the threat of a 10-day notice right now violates Governor Jay Inslee's eviction moratorium, which expires on 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."