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Rental Biz Turns Ugly As Evictions Increase, Tenants Strike Back

Sun., Feb. 5, 1995

Spokane’s rental housing scene is turning hostile.

Landlords are evicting tenants at a record pace, and some tenants are striking back, trashing homes and apartments on their way out.

There were 92 evictions in December in Spokane County, more than double the prior year’s total for the same month.

Some observers blame escalating rental prices. Others attribute it to naive new landlords trying to tap the booming market.

As more Spokane tenants miss rents, they’re booted out and branded with bad credit records. Landlords suffer too, losing months of income and spending hundreds of dollars on attorneys.

“It does seem to be getting worse,” said Laurie Richard, of Tenant Information Services, a Spokane firm that runs credit and background checks.

During the last seven months of 1994, 665 Spokane tenants were legally ousted, a 60 percent jump from the same span in 1993, according to court records.

Richard said her company gets new business from about three landlords a day - “mostly because … they’ve had a unit trashed.”

Dave Baker dealt with two landlord debacles in recent weeks.

The Spokane property manager, and president of Baker & Associates, fumed about the worst mess he’d ever seen a tenant leave.

The $775-a-month, three-bedroom rancher on the north 5900 block of Cannon looked as if it had been hit by an earthquake.

“It’s just a pig pen,” Baker said.

Garbage was stacked waist-high and stinking up the garage. Dolls, Budweiser quart bottles and possessions were scattered across inside floors. A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video stuck out of a bag, as did a photo album. A brown Christmas tree was on the carpet.

Picking through the mess, Baker was stumped. He wasn’t sure who really lived there during the past two months when the rent wasn’t paid.

There was a Cox Cable bill for $94.55 on the counter, addressed to someone not on the lease. There also was a welfare check to someone else Baker didn’t rent to.

Baker said he took a chance on the couple and their two kids last August. He let them slide when they didn’t pay the December rent, he said, out of holiday spirit.

When the rent didn’t come in January, Baker moved to evict them. That process takes a landlord almost a full month, and about $700 in legal fees.

“I’m usually a pretty tough cookie,” said Baker, a stout man sporting cowboy boots and a bull-rider’s belt buckle. “As much of an effort as we made to work with these folk, I can’t believe” what they did.

Baker estimated the landlord’s costs of lost rent, attorney fees and cleanup expenses at about $2,500.

“They were very convincing,” he said of the tenants. He now suspects their references were bogus, and that they knew how to milk the system for free rent.

“They played it right to the wire,” Baker said, noting more tenants now wait to move until right before the police knock at the door.

Jim Bamberger, of Spokane Legal Services, said his office is swamped with poor tenants fighting evictions.

“What we see is people who are desperate, who don’t have incomes to maintain sufficient housing. Most of them are good people.”

Bamberger blamed the growing tenant-landlord animosity on escalating rents.

Monthly rates for the average Spokane rental unit have risen by about 60 percent in the past five years.

“Do the math,” Bamberger said. “If you’ve got a $5-anhour job you can’t afford to rent a place in this town.”

To Baker, who manages about 100 Spokane rentals, the problem is too many people renting homes they can’t afford. “It’s a matter of living within their means,” he said.

Baker also said Spokane landlords lost many of their best tenants who bought homes when interest rates fell during the past two years.

After a weekend of figuring out what to do with the Cannon Street house, Baker faced another crisis Monday.

A Spokane landlord who lives in Pasco asked him to regain control of her $450-a-month rental home on the west 2300 block of Dean Avenue.

The rent hadn’t been paid since November. The city water had been turned off for weeks. The two tenants on the lease were nowhere to be found.

Baker found the house a wreck. Junk was stacked on the porch. Two apparently junked cars were in the yard. He told an annoyed man he and his two kids were trespassing. The man told him to go away.

Baker came back the next day with the police. It turned out there was a warrant for the man’s arrest on an unrelated matter. This eviction seemingly would be easy.

But the tenant wasn’t around. Baker still was trying to oust him on Friday.

Doug Fleming, civil deputy for the sheriff’s department, said that evictions are more common, and the tenants are more hostile.

“The incidents of violence are rare, but the potential is there on every one,” Fleming said.

Fleming said most tenants make plans for moving, and offer no resistance. But he said occasionally deputies are forced to kick down doors and pull people out.

It’s unpleasant work, he said. “Some people call us the grim reapers.”

One Chart: Out the door


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