A soggy snowdrift of brown and white insulation and hunks of popcorn ceiling have been blanketing living rooms for weeks at the Miro Apartments.
Located at 31004 19th Place Southwest in Federal Way, the apartment complex hosts 386 units and has been managed by international company Greystar since 2019.
Multiple ceilings collapsed at the Federal Way apartment complex in mid-January after hot water pipes burst during freezing temperatures. The management at Miro has responded in different ways to different tenants. Tenants say the one consistent theme has been a lack of adequate communication or response.
Jael Thacher was home on Jan. 14 when the hot water poured down from above, bringing chunks of her ceiling down with it.
Cleanup of the incident may take anywhere from 2-4 weeks to months, depending on who Miro management is communicating with.
“Repairs will commence once the apartments have been fully dried out,” Miro management stated in an email to Thacher.
This drying process has so far consisted of large dehumidifiers provided to two apartments, and encouragement to set up a small personal fan in another. No effort has been made to remove the soggy piles of insulation to aid this drying process as of 12 days after the incident.
The insulation also most likely contains a substance called asbestos, which can cause multiple types of cancer, according to addendums that tenants have to sign when moving into the apartments. The apartments were built in the late 1970s and have popcorn style ceilings, which also puts them into this high risk category. These same documents say that materials containing asbestos are relatively safe “so long as they are not dislodged or disturbed in a manner that causes the asbestos fibers to be released.”
Even “sanding, scraping, pounding” can be a risk because anything that could “produce dust and cause the asbestos particles to become airborne” puts people in harm’s way, according to the paperwork.
While working with the maintenance team to try to address concerns about mold and moisture coming from her ceiling a few months earlier, Thacher said in a November email “the contractor was here to test for asbestos so that the ceiling could be worked on.”
On the same day Thacher’s ceiling collapsed, two buildings over, Katherine Blinkova’s ceiling collapsed for the first time. She was there nine days later when it collapsed again. Another tenant — a single parent and domestic violence survivor who asked not to be named — shares a wall with Blinkova and returned from her work to find her furniture buried under the wreckage of her ceiling.
After the ceiling collapse, all three tenants tried to call the emergency maintenance number provided by the apartment complex when they saw the mess — and got no response. They each say the emergency number has never been functional and that maintenance requests through the apartment’s ticketing system are not dealt with quickly.
Thacher said she sent an email on Jan. 15, but she included a reference to a state statute that requires response within 24 hours for hazardous conditions. She received a response to that message within the hour. That email stated that management is “aware that there has been water damage in your apartment,” adding that due to the “extent of this issue,” they are “advising all residents to contact their renters’ insurance for assistance in securing alternative housing.”
Blinkova wasn’t contacted until Jan. 17 at 2:22 p.m., and was told that she is “not allowed to stay in the apartment during the repair process.”
Thacher said that after considering the offer of a new lease in another apartment in the complex, she ultimately said “no, because if this happened to many buildings already, that means that all the buildings have a problem, this is an unsafe complex in general.”
Blinkova echoed that sentiment, and after three years in the apartments, she is planning to move out as well.
In emails to Blinkova and Thacher, Miro management told them they could terminate the lease without any penalties.
In the next email, Thacher asked for her rent to be refunded for the period of time that her home was uninhabitable. The management refused, and their direct response to that request was to contradict their previous email and tell her that “Miro is not obligated to extend early lease terminations when: a). the incident leading to termination is classified as an act of God. b). Residents’ have been presented with alternative housing options.”
Miro management’s full statement to the Mirror is below.
“Unfortunately during a recent cold snap, some frozen pipes burst causing water damage to several ceilings. We have provided options and help to the impacted residents which include transfers to vacant units, lease break options with no penalties and refunded rent. We apologize for any inconvenience to our residents.”
None of the four tenants that the Mirror spoke to about collapsed ceilings were offered refunded rent.
The Miro management has sited freezing temperatures as the reason for the pipes bursting and the ceiling collapse, but Thacher and Blinkova have been trying to get help with mold, condensation, leaking and strange lumps on their ceiling for months.
Other issues at Miro
Ronald Rhodes has had an open hole instead of a kitchen floor for almost six months. Rats often come up through the gaping opening, he said. The situation has been so dire that he spent some time living in his car, but is now staying in the apartment again after running out of other options.
Rhodes’ rental cost is over 90 percent of his Social Security check. This is double the cost of his previous apartment in the complex. He had to move out of that one after the “stairs disintegrated underneath me” and “messed up my body” a few years earlier.
This incident is the subject of a current lawsuit he has against the apartment complex. After the accident, he became disabled. He says it also took the apartment complex two months to replace the four stairs that he had fallen through, making it nearly impossible for him to leave his upper story apartment.
Rhodes said he was offered his current apartment without being told the rent be so much higher and is now being evicted because he is unable to pay it.
In posts on Nextdoor and in reviews of the apartments on Google maps, many current and past tenants share similar stories of faulty and dangerous living spaces and infrastructure and a lack of adequate response from Miro management.
Edmund Witter, a senior managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project, said the tenants “have a very obvious claim against the landlord.”
If filed, these claims would have to be individual because Miro requires all tenants to sign an addendum on their lease that waives their right to participate in a class action lawsuit.
On hearing the “act of God” justification provided by the apartment complex, Witter said in his opinion, “they would have a really hard case to make, that this is an act of God to me…I just don’t think that that’s really likely.”
“There’s a legal doctrine that if something was in your control, and it goes wrong, you can’t just fall back on act of God. Unless it’s pretty clear, like there’s real evidence,” Witter explained. Otherwise, legally you can “assume that you were negligent if you were in control of the thing.”
Witter said the tenants’ two possible avenues are to focus on the violation of their rental contract, or to seek relocation assistance via Washington statue RCW 59.18.085.
One challenge of the second option is that it depends on the local government doing “an inspection of the place, and basically say, this is not fit for human habitation,” Witter said. “My experience with Federal Way government is that they do not do those kinds of inspections.”
The City of Federal Way said “The City has been out to inspect the damage caused by the water pipe failure. The City inspected the damage and, in the opinion of the staff, the units were still safe to occupy. The City has not determined the dwellings are unlawful to occupy as they have not met any of the provisions of Section 304.1.1 (Unsafe Conditions – Exterior Structure) or Section 305.1.1 (Unsafe Conditions – Interior Structure) of the International Property Maintenance Code.” This code is under FWRC 13.43.20, which is the 2018 International Property Maintenance Code, as amended by FWRC 13.43.030.
The city did not evaluate the apartments for asbestos before determining that they are safe because “asbestos testing is under the jurisdiction of the state.”
Witter said it is possible that tenants can still seek relocation assistance under the statute through proving their rental contract was violated since their landlord did not provide habitable living spaces.
In Federal Way, council members and city staff were working on an ordinance in 2018 and 2019 that would address these type of issues within the city, but it never came to pass.
The proposal was around a Rental Inspection Ordinance that would have focused on improving the substandard housing in Federal Way, most likely by creating a database for tracking rental properties and a staff person assigned to respond to complaints and inspection needs.
The proposal was discussed multiple times in early 2018, moved to another committee and the original proposed timeline stated a goal of October 2019 for a draft of the law to be reviewed by the Land Use and Transportation Committee. The ordinance was not on the agenda for the months of September 2019 through February 2020, and it is unclear whether an ordinance was ever presented for review.
Advocating for the law at a council meeting in 2018, one public commentor said: “We just want the city to know that your residents are living in spots that are not safe, they’re not healthy and they’re having a lot of stress caused because of this.”
“It’s so fundamental that every human life deserves a healthy place to live,” former Federal Way City Councilmember Martin Moore said in an interview, reflecting on his involvement in the attempt to pass that law. “Our current laws aren’t working.”