[Guest Writer Aidan Hersh has lived in Bellingham for 9 years, where he graduated from WWU with a bachelor's in anthropology. As a tenant for those 9 years, he has experienced the ubiquitous exploitation and extractive business practices of local landlords and is working with Tenant's Revolt to empower other tenants to demand the dignity they deserve.]
A house, by its most fundamental definition, is a building that families, friends, or even strangers cohabitate. From a utilitarian (and legal) perspective, it provides shelter from the natural elements, a place to cook, and rooms to sleep in, among other basic needs. However, when a house is inhabited by an individual, or a collection of individuals, that house becomes more than just its structural and mechanical components. Whether our occupancy extends over multiple years or is just a transitory passing through, we intrinsically develop a relationship with our house and the objects, experiences, and people with which we fill it. Maybe it’s a specific chair we love to sit in, the sound the backyard gate makes when someone closes it, or even a blemish on the house that elicits an endearing memory of a harmless mistake. Our lived experiences within a house create unique emotional ties to what, objectively, is just a structure made of wood, brick, or cement. Subjectively, however, a house represents a spectrum of emotions, smells, and textures that cannot be fully understood nor experienced by anyone but its inhabitants. This is what makes a house a home.
For the many corporate landlords of Bellingham, a house is nothing but a number; usually one of many numbers whose ultimate utility is a means of extracting profit from vulnerable residents, namely students and people living paycheck to paycheck. The experiences, memories, and personal connections experienced by us, the actual residents of the house, are irrelevant in the cold, extractive relationship between tenant and landlord. Most importantly, however, is that basic housing standards, which we have collectively decided are the bare minimum a tenant legally deserves, are also irrelevant. Too often are a landlord’s legal obligations to their tenants seen as inconveniences or nuisances, something to be skirted around in order to cut costs.
I have rented from Lakeway Realty, owned by Dave Hansen, for over three years, living in a six-bedroom house that was built in 1920. I have seen numerous roommates, and even a pet pig, come and go over these three years, and while all of these people have been essential in forming unforgettable core memories, there are plenty of aspects of this house I would rather forget. To list all of the safety and health hazards at this property would be a herculean task. Single pane windows that freeze on the interior side of the glass, nonfunctional bathroom ventilation that causes mold growth, collapsing cement ceilings being supported by flimsy drop ceilings, rotten steps that nearly collapse under minimal weight. The list goes on. It may be surprising to some that conditions like this are allowed to exist, in fact, deemed as code compliant by private inspectors, but considering Lakeway tried to illegally rent out the basement of this house as a 7th bedroom, despite it containing standing water and fruiting mushrooms, it’s business as usual for them.
Not once in the three years of my tenancy has Lakeway Realty done anything to tangibly increase the value of the house or to address any of the concerns of its tenants. In fact, in my experience, the extremely rare “repairs” carried out at the house have led to what I could only characterize as a decrease in value, such as a “repair” to the shower which led to a leak that burst through the ceiling of the bedroom below. Despite the explicit neglect of our living conditions by Lakeway, they have increased our rent by 45% over the past two years.
I would like to be able to report that, upon losing our patience with Lakeway’s treatment of us, we contacted the appropriate authorities who swiftly came to the rescue, issuing the proper consequences for the various code violations occurring at the property. Unfortunately, there proved to be extreme incompetence and unaccountability on the side of those meant to uphold my rights as a tenant as well. It took a quick public records request to learn that this property had failed five City of Bellingham rental inspections since July of 2022. Not once were any of the tenants told about this. For weeks, we tried to get answers from city inspectors and others involved in the rental registration process, yet no one could give us a satisfactory answer as to why no action had been taken on this case and why Lakeway was free to continue neglecting their responsibilities while happily extracting additional rent from us.
It has taken dozens of working hours, phone calls, and gaslighting conversations to get to the point that our case was escalated to code enforcement. Yet even now, after speaking at several City Council meetings, with Lakeway missing deadline after deadline, they have not seen a single penny’s worth of fines for breaking the law and violating over 35 municipal codes. City officials communicate with Lakeway behind closed doors, leaving us, the tenants, completely out of the conversation until it suits them. We have been told time and again that the goal of code enforcement is ensuring compliance, not issuing fines, but I thought the goal of laws was to ensure compliance? How many laws does a landlord have to break before those with the responsibility of holding them accountable decide to do their jobs?
Looking back through the history of this property, it’s the same story over and over again. City officials present Lakeway with empty threats and arbitrary deadline extensions, allowing Lakeway to escape without consequence every time they break the law. In 2015, a fire occurred at this property, the house was condemned two days later, giving Lakeway 180 days to either demolish or repair the house. It wasn’t until 267 days later that a final city inspection approved the necessary repairs. In June of 2018, Lakeway was given 30 days to fix multiple leaks in the basement, which they had illegally turned into a 7th bedroom. The deadline to fix this issue was extended three times until finally being considered fixed in January of 2019. However, I can say with confidence over four years later, the issue was never truly addressed, as recent maintenance work has identified the same code violations being present now, despite Lakeway being required to fix them back in 2018. Today, the pattern repeats itself, with Lakeway failing five inspections over the past 15 months and still seeing deadlines extended in the name of compliance.
If you’re someone who finds empathy hard to come by, or perhaps a landlord yourself, your immediate reaction to my experience might be victim blaming or desperately wanting to share your negative experiences with tenants to somehow level the playing field, as if the economic hardships associated with owning multiple homes somehow compare to the illegal yet widespread health and safety risks that tenants are forced to endure. If you find yourself having that reaction, I encourage you to think about why that may be, because it’s preventing you from understanding the reality of the situation. The conditions that many tenants in Bellingham are living in are inhumane, and the landlords that knowingly rent out these properties are criminals. Tenants are being forced to funnel increasingly large sums of money to people who do not care about our health and safety, while this insidious system continues to be perpetuated by landlords, and their City of Bellingham counterparts, with impunity.
While it’s important to me and my roommates to draw attention to the conditions we have been living in and expose Lakeway Realty for who they really are, I want to make it clear that we are not an exception. This happens all across Bellingham and far too many people live in worse conditions than we do. Landlords are happy to cheaply patch up the symptoms of any serious underlying damage while failing to address the actual problems at their properties, especially when a large portion of their victims are students who won’t be renewing their leases the following year. They then funnel next year’s students through unsafe houses year after year without a second thought. Students, understandably, would rather move out when their lease is up than put in the unreasonable amount of time and energy it takes to get a landlord to make even minimal repairs. And from the perspective of the landlord, it’s a win-win. Why respond to emails from pesky tenants asking you to spend your hard earned passive income on expensive repairs when you can just ignore their emails with no consequences? If I didn’t have a trace of empathy for other people, I would absolutely consider a career as a landlord.
The situation is dire, and the lack of serious discussion around it is extremely concerning. Far too often are my appeals and the appeals of others met with shortsighted rebuttals such as “Why don’t you just move?” as if that is a financial possibility for most tenants. This type of response also normalizes and sets a precedent for burdening the tenant with finding a suitable home, rather than holding landlords accountable for what is already legally required of them. Finally, it puts the current tenant in an ethically unfair situation where they must knowingly allow a new tenant to live in a home they are vacating due to health and safety concerns, thus perpetuating the cycle of illegal housing conditions.
My goal is to encourage more productive conversation which in turn may lead to meaningful action in support of tenants. With that in mind, I’d like to leave you with some questions: By what means are landlords being allowed to violate codes and break laws with impunity? Who should be tasked with holding landlords accountable and what should the consequences be? Can you imagine a different type of housing system that would function better than this current arrangement? What power imbalances exist in the current system and are they justifiable?
In order to create a more equitable community, instead of one that throws people out on the streets because they can’t afford rent, while ignoring blatant white collar crime by landlords, we need to ask ourselves these questions and critically investigate our answers. My own answers to these questions have led me to joining Tenant’s Revolt, an organization that has empowered me and other Bellingham tenants to be heard and fight for our rights in an unprecedentedly predatory housing market. Most recently, we launched an interactive map that allows tenants to report rentals that do not meet habitability standards. This is a crucial resource for renters, as it provides a more accurate way for us to understand the conditions and history of a potential rental. In general, Tenant’s Revolt has taught me that tenants are not alone. We deserve better than what has been given to us. We deserve safe housing, we deserve to be healthy, and we deserve dignity. By working together, we can achieve this and much more.