Federal Way tenants feel the squeeze from trickle-down economy

Michelle Breen enjoyed the cushy lifestyle of New York City. She had the right job, high-powered friends and a lovely one-bedroom condo on tony Madison Avenue.

But after 12 years in the Big Apple, her Wall Street job crumbled. She found herself knee-high in debt, and could no longer afford to pay the exorbitant mortgage on her dwelling. Before long, she had to sell it to her next-door neighbor, and moved back home to her parents in Seattle.

From Wall Street to Main Street, millions of people are finding it difficult to stay afloat financially. Many are forced to downsize their living quarters. People who once owned palatial homes are now relegated to apartment rentals.

This shift in status has created anxiety and stress on both tenants and landlords. Neither group knows how to best broker a middle ground. In my quest to find a remedy for this burgeoning dilemma, I interviewed a number of property managers in the Federal Way area. All of them seemed to speak with one voice — with a few exceptions.

When the breadwinner lost his job with Boeing last year, his family of seven had a hard time paying their bills on time. They tried to work out a plan with the property manager whereby they could pay their rent incrementally. But within 72 hours, the dreaded “3-day pay or vacate notice” (RCW59.12.030(3)), was tagged to their door.

This was a blow to their ego. The family could not understand why, after years of being good paying tenants, their landlord could not show some sympathy toward their plight in this time of pressing needs.

“As property managers, our hands are tied,” said the property manager at Fox Run Apartments. “With the Washington state fair housing act, we are bound by law to treat every tenant the same way. Therefore, whatever we do for one, we have to do for all.”

A landlady who rents her houses privately told me that one of her tenants was facing a hard time financially. Less than a year in his lease, he could not pay his bills on time. She spoke glowingly of his paying rent even before the due date, whenever times were good. She arranged for him to pay her a percentage of the rent until he was able to do so fully. “It’s just the right thing to do,” she said.

‘Cut the little guy some slack’

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 44.8 percent of Washington state’s renters spent more than 30 percent of their household income on rent and utilities in 2007. Of all the states combined, Washington ranks 20th on that list.

Some tenants have grumbled that homeowners facing foreclosures have legions of advocates in Washington, D.C., and Olympia. But as renters, they have nobody to say a word on their behalf. They want lawmakers to change the statutes so that tenants could have a better grace period.

Currently, in some apartment units, if a tenant owes rent past three days, the landlord can employ the services of an attorney, and start eviction proceedings based on their contract agreement. Tenants are responsible for late fees, which average around $50 the first day, and $5 for each additional day the rent is unpaid. Attorney’s fees could then be tagged on to the tune of $300. And it only gets worse from that point.

Most of the tenants I’ve spoken with are hard-working and honest people. They are not looking for handouts. They also maintained that people who make it a career for not paying their rent on time, if they can afford to do so, should be penalized for their selfish acts. All they are calling for is fairness on the part of the landlords.

“Many of us are one paycheck away from becoming homeless,” said Victor Morgan, an apartment dweller in Twin Lakes. “It’s only fair that if homeowners can owe up to four months’ mortgage before being kicked out, that tenants should be accorded some readjustment with their rent policies. Cut the little guy some slack.”

Finding a home - and relief

Another property manager from the Reserve Apartments off SW Campus Drive said that her company has been doing its best to help people find apartments without some of the hassles.

She acknowledged that people who have had foreclosed homes and now want to rent would have an easier time finding an apartment on their property than, say, six months ago. This act of kindness and understanding came about in light of the mortgage crises, she said. However, applicants with felonies will not find a welcome mat any time soon at her premises, she said.

The felony ordeal takes on a life of its own. While Joe Schmo and Mary Lee can find an apartment with ease if they have a clean record and a good credit, people who have had run-ins with the law are having a harder time finding suitable dwellings in this economy. One of the more viable options for felons is to purchase their own home.

Ironically, it is a tad easier for families with children to get organizational aid.

Debra Snoey, a managing broker for Windermere at the Federal Way office, said that since 1989, Windermere has prided itself on giving back to its community.

“All agents who signed up with Windermere are encouraged to give a percentage of their commissions to a benevolent chapter of the company called the Windermere Foundation,” she said.

Snoey noted that recipients are not required to have prior association with their company in order to be entitled for this fund. Families with children who have fallen on hard times or face eviction can get help from this organization. A designated employee oversees this foundation, she said, so this is no ad hoc kind of operation.

The clergy believed, too, that there should be more aid going toward the less fortunate in our society during this moribund economy.

“As leaders, we need to put an emphasis on human support to help people who are struggling. We must donate, serve and give favors. People all around are getting tossed out of their homes when the dollar is short. We must re-evaluate this; if not, society is at a risk for extinction,” said Federal Way’s own Pastor Sandra Allen. She based her argument on the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant,” found in Matthew 18.

City plans faith-based summit

The city government has no laws on the book to soften the blow for cash-strapped tenants. But Lynette S. Hynden, Federal Way Human Services manager for the Community Development Services, said the city is planning to convene a faith-based summit this spring to bring about more funding in these areas. It is a way of saying “let’s work together on some programs,” she said.

Hynden hopes that some of the money will be diverted from Seattle to Federal Way to somewhat level the playing field in King County.

“There should be some flexibility with how landlords conduct business with tenants,” Hynden said. It doesn’t do anything for landlords who are too rigid, she added.

For people facing evictions, Hynden recommended that they contact the following agencies before the situations are too far gone: St. Vincent de Paul Society, run by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Roni, who give out 100 percent grants to people facing hardships; The Federal Way Community Caregiving Network (FWCCN), run by Doug Johnson. Human Services Commission gives funding to some of these agencies as well, Hynden said.

In 1880, a British landlord, Captain Charles C. Boycott, was unwilling to compromise with his Irish tenants’ many appeals for mercy. After being rebuffed by their unyielding land agent, the tenants had no choice but to go on strike against him. From that protest, the English language was given a new verb: "Boycott," which means to ostracize. Let’s hope that landlords and tenants can have better dialogues before more unflattering monikers are added to our lexicon.

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