Landlord and student clashes save little room for patience

It was the second week of August when graduate student Blanca Ramos returned to Pullman, only to find a good portion of her apartment covered in soot.

A fire in the apartment burned the upper level of the structure a few days earlier, and she was never contacted.

She went to her rental agency, DRA Real Estate, to figure out what happened and why no one had reached out to her. The fire department was supposed to inform her, not DRA, she was told by office representatives.

For the next several weeks, Ramos butted heads with DRA in an effort to try and figure out just what exactly her rights were as a tenant. Eventually she had to relocate to a new residence and get reimbursed by DRA after an uphill battle.

“I think students need to make informed decisions and know that they actually have rights,” Ramos said, reflecting on her experience.

Therein lies one of the many grievances held by a large portion of the student body at Washington State University, the same demographic that moves from Residence Halls to apartments and houses for rent all around College Hill and the rest of the city.

The narrative of rental agencies and landlords not working well with students is a conversation that has been persistent throughout the WSU community for years. Wynn Mosman, a lawyer at the student-run office of Student Legal Services (SLS), has worked with WSU students on landlord-tenant relations for more than 20 years.

“I do think there are some properties in Pullman that are dives, and generally some landlords are only motivated to collect rent,” Mosman said.

Mosman said there are some landlords in Pullman that are simply out of touch with how to handle young customers in a student-driven economy, which in turn causes problems for landlords and tenants alike.

The common complaints Mosman said he encounters from students are repairs in units never being completed and damage deposits at the end of leases, which many students rely on going into new leases.

A common claim Mosman said he’s heard from landlords over the years is that students generally don’t take care of their living spaces, that they damage properties and leave them amuck.

“To say students are the only problem, that’s not the reality,” he said. “There are absolutely students that trash up places, but there are also landlords causing problems.”

He has noticed another common trend among students: the naïveté among underclassmen eager to be out on their own.

“I can’t begin to tell you how many students have come here and told me that they never checked out the location before signing the lease,” he said.

Mosman also said several students, typically the younger ones, don’t consult with friends or family before renting. He said that despite how easy it is to follow up on such things, many students simply just don’t do it.

“I can think of no student that would be offended being stopped on the sidewalk and being asked what their experience was like renting from a particular place,” Mosman said.

Students often set themselves up for leasing hardships because they do not know what their rights as tenants are.

Washington state has an entire act dedicated to landlord-tenant protections called the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (RLTA) that has detailed checks and balances for all parties involved.

Out of the various rental companies in Pullman and the surrounding Palouse communities, one that is frequently complained about is DRA.

The nonprofit Better Business Bureau gave the rental agency a “C” rating on its website based on a scale of A+ to F.

The Evergreen reached out to several students to describe their experience with DRA or other agencies. Many of them voiced concerns similar to the ones Mosman alluded to. DRA was unavailable for comment.

Because of the volume of students who have complained about being mistreated and living in poor conditions, ASWSU is in the process of starting a new program called Cougar Choice Housing, the objective of which is to ensure fair and safe housing for students.

The origins of the program go back at least to former ASWSU President Jared Powell, who has since graduated. The initiative carried over to current president Kyle Geiger.

Geiger said the coordinator position for the program will be posted soon, but he has some concern about filling the position as there is only enough funding, a total of $70,000, to support the position for a year.

“It’s gonna be tough to find someone who is qualified but isn’t guaranteed they’d have a job after,” Geiger said.

Aside from SLS, there are other local resources for student tenants in Pullman, such as the Whitman County Lanlord-Tenant Association (WCLTA), a non-profit whose main purpose is to serve as an educational resource for landlords and tenants alike.

Anita Hornback, president of WCLTA, said these early years of adulthood provide important opportunities for students to learn from how they handle real-world circumstances such as living on their own. The organization tries to host frequent seminars on campus for students to learn about how to be responsible tenants as to educate them about their rights.

“This is where you learn going out in the real world, and you sign a document and make sure you make payments,” she said. “And also deal with the consequences if you don’t meet those requirements.”

Hornback, who has been a landlord in Pullman for more than 25 years, said the key to a good relationship between landlord and tenant is frequent and open communication.

She also said, apart from scouting potential locations to rent, students need to make sure they are paying closer attention to legal documents before they sign them.

“Read your lease. Do not go and rent something before you know what you’re getting yourself into,” she said. “And you should at least be asking a friend or someone questions.”

For those interested in learning more about their rights as a tenant, the RLTA can be accessed under Title 59 in the RCWs.