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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘You pay rent and you don’t get to shower’: The conditions at one Spokane apartment building underscore some residents’ desperation for housing

Del Marsengill, known as “Patch,” sits outside his Spokane apartment on Feb. 14. He is not one of the tenants being evicted from the building, but he believes his time there is limited.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

An apartment building sitting above the Red Lion Pub on North Division Street was good for years, Del Marsengill said as he sat in the hallway earlier this month, breathing through his respirator.

“And then it all went to hell.”

The building has no lock on the front entrance. When the steel door opened on Wednesday of last week, a decaying stench filled the air. The narrow stairs led up to another entrance that revealed 21 doors: some had the word “vacant” sprayed on with red paint, which covered the gray wood panels.

Bags of trash lined parts of the hallway, and a dirty mop bucket sat in the corner. The ceilings were leaking and peeling, while the floor was sticky. Fruit flies gathered around the ceiling lights. Bugs that resemble cockroaches scattered into the crevasses of the walls.

At the end of the hallway on the third floor, with 21 more apartment doors, a fire escape was blocked with mounds of trash below it. Used needles were scattered on the roof. A shared shower the tenants need to use had a lock on the outside. Some haven’t bathed in months.

Marsengill is known by the other tenants as “Patch” due to the patch covering his eye from an old injury. He’s been collecting rent from the residents there for years. Twenty years ago, he said, the building was shut down. But he helped “bring it back up.”

There used to be crack cocaine everywhere, he said. And the conditions still aren’t great. Homeless people find corners to sleep in, do drugs inside and upset the people who do live there.

“I’ve been frustrated for 20 years,” Marsengill said.

The Red Lion closed in December, but the tenants above the pub remained.

Now, many of them don’t have a choice.

The tenants Marsengill collects rent from are all being evicted. Court documents show the property owner, Melvin “MJ” Reisenauer, is suing eight of his tenants for failure to pay rent that varies. Some pay about $325 a month. Others are on a month-to-month agreement without a signed lease.

Six tenants have said Reisenauer asked them to stop paying rent in the summer. They said there wasn’t really a reason – just that he told them he would no longer be collecting it.

Reisenauer said he didn’t tell the tenants to stop paying rent, he told them to stop paying Marsengill, the onsite manager.

“I was not renting out any more empty rooms,” he said. “Pay the property owner or the attorney, or your attorney.”

Reisenauer said he is shutting the building down because it’s too expensive to keep it running with the amount of rent the tenants are paying. He’s owned it since the early 2000s.

“Mid-summer I said we are closing down,” he said. “I said we are closing because of property taxes … The rent could not cover the expenses of the building … The remaining people had a tough time covering rent to begin with.”

Marsengill is not being evicted. But he was often confused with Reisenauer’s decisions and always thought he was being taken advantage of.

“He told me 100 different things. He told me to stop collecting rent in July,” Marsengill said.

Last week, when the eight of them got eviction notices on their doors, they began to panic.

“I can’t sleep at night because of it,” said tenant David Collman, 61. “I feel like I’m going to die if I go back out on the streets.”

When Collman first moved to Spokane from Tacoma, he ended up homeless and living on the streets. As soon as he found the apartment, he “tried to do the best” he could with what he had.

“I don’t know how to read or write,” Collman said. “I promised myself when I got this place, I’d never be homeless again.”

Collman missed an appointment to seek affordable housing because he was dealing with some psychiatric issues, he said. Since then, no one has wanted to rent to him, and he has to find an interpreter to read documents, which is hard to come by.

“The more I ask for help, the less I get,” he said.

The conditions within the apartment are almost unlivable, Collman said. Yet, even with the combination of break-ins, lack of maintenance and the state of the building, it’s still better than living on the street. But Collman and most of the other tenants haven’t been able to shower for months.

From the sanitary conditions to the lack of options for residents like Collman once they’re evicted, housing advocates say the issues at the building speak to a wider problem in Spokane.

“The situation in Spokane right now is people living in unsafe conditions,” said Terri Anderson, the director of the Tenants Union of Washington State. “They need a place to stay.”

No longer cost-effective

According to court documents, those being evicted must be out by March 1.

Davie Tittman has only been living in the apartments for a year and wasn’t included in the first round of evictions. She also is unable to shower.

There are four bathrooms in the apartment building, according to a permit from 1965. But one of those is a private bathroom with a shower that the other tenants can’t use, and next to that is a toilet-only room.

On the third floor, there’s a shared shower and a toilet. Like the second floor, there is a toilet next to it. But the shower and toilet room has been sealed shut for months, Tittman said. She has a bad hip, so she is unable to even walk upstairs to use the public shower. But it doesn’t matter, she said – it’s off limits to everybody now.

To clean herself, she has a friend fill a bucket with water and bring it into her apartment. Tittman takes a cloth and rinses herself, in what she described as a “bird bath.”

“I worked all my life,” Tittman said. “I want my own toilet and shower. That is considered a gift. You pay rent and you don’t get to shower? Is that asking so much?”

Tenant Jimmy Martin, who helps with maintenance around the building, said he’s been faithful to Reisenauer since he began working for him in the last five years. A lot of things he tries to fix, but sometimes he can’t do it all by himself. The conditions are getting worse, Martin said, and the hot water is “iffy.” He was asked by Reisenauer to lock down all the bathrooms, well before the tenants were supposed to be out of the building, he said. Martin said he was served a notice to pay rent and vacate the property, but that was after Reisenauer told the tenants to stop paying rent, leaving most of them confused.

Martin, like other tenants, doesn’t know where he’ll go.

“There’s only one bathroom. He has us lock it down to shut down the building,” Martin said. “We are still here. He shouldn’t be locking the doors at all.”

This all started during the eviction moratorium Gov. Jay Inslee issued in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reisenauer said. The eviction moratorium was followed by a proclamation meant to gain time for rental assistance distribution, but all expired in 2021.

“The majority of people weren’t paying rent or were behind on rent,” he said. “I was there every third day and not one offered to pay. They could mail the rent; frankly, most of them don’t deal with mail.”

Asked about the conditions of the apartment building, Reisenauer said four bathrooms were available.

“I don’t think there’s locks,” he said. As far as the fire escape being blocked, Reisenauer said there was a problem with homelessness, and the same goes for the lock on the front door.

Reisenauer said he “has fixed things” himself, but if there was anything major wrong with the building, he’d hire out.

Reisenauer said he would repeatedly post notices on tenants’ doors but received no response.

“They want to point at me, but you have to look at the way they live, too,” Reisenauer said. “I understand they might not be able to afford rent anywhere. But I can’t operate that building. The costs to operate have creeped up.”

‘Tenants are suffering’

According to fire inspection documents, the Red Lion apartments had multiple inspections last year. In September, the City of Spokane recorded 10 violations, some of which included general housekeeping, electrical wiring problems, issues with the fire escape and that the general hallways and corridors were “not maintained.”

Just six days later, another inspection recorded the same violations, but that there were smoke alarms missing inside the units. In December of that year, the apartments’ inspection was closed and passed as “compliant.”

But the conditions of the apartment may not even have lived up to Spokane’s code enforcement standards to begin with, Anderson said.

The code says “substandard conditions” include dilapidation, structural defects, health hazards and fire hazards – all of which the tenants have pointed out themselves.

“Tenants are suffering. We want people to know what’s happening,” Anderson said.

The building also may not live up to Washington’s warrant of habitability, according to Northwest Justice Project’s advocacy counsel, Scott Crain.

“A landlord has significant obligations, and the basic one is they provide a dwelling that is fit for human habitation. A place a human being can be expected to live as their main home,” Crain said. “Bathrooms are one of them. That is a basic thing we would expect as part of housing. If you don’t have a shower or a wash basin, that clearly violates a warrant of habitability.”

A warrant of habitability is a legal concept where a landlord promises the home or apartment is safe to live in. Under Washington law, this means the landlord is required to maintain property that complies with regulations, and it cannot endanger or impair the health and safety of the tenant.

“It’s sort of a thing that’s so basic, it’s like it doesn’t need to be said,” Crain said.

Tenants can have an oral agreement with the landlord, but it’s still illegal to deny part of the dwelling that was offered when they initially moved in. That includes the use of a shower and a lock on the apartment door, too.

“The fact that there are problems with people breaking in, it’s not the tenants job to secure the building. It doesn’t absolve the landlord,” Crain said.

Spokane is in dire need of help, Anderson said, and housing “needs a big fix.”

A Spokane problem?

Some cities in Washington have ordinances where a landlord cannot raise rent if they fail a housing inspection. Spokane is not one of them.

Even with the city passing an ordinance in February that increased enforcement of substandard rental units, which received unanimous support from the seven council members, Anderson has seen tenants living in what she calls “squalor.”

She’s heard cases where a landlord will rent out an old utility room to an entire family who is escaping the streets. She’s seen part of an abandoned strip mall in Spokane, not zoned for residential housing, full of tenants using partitions for privacy just to have a space that is out of the cold. Anderson says it’s just a piece of what the housing crisis within the city looks like.

“There are tenants that want that because they have nothing else,” she said. “I have gone in buildings at the request of code enforcement because tenants are too afraid to open the door since landlords have told people not to let code enforcement in. And these people don’t want to get evicted.”

Others in Spokane looking for cheaper housing are getting scammed. Anderson recalls situations where people post apartments in the city and ask for a payment online because the landlord lives in Seattle. It’s not real, and the tenant who can barely afford an apartment to begin with is now out of more than $1,000.

Compared to Seattle, Anderson says Spokane is worse.

“It’s like third-world country conditions. Citizens of the city of Spokane do not want to have conditions where their people are living in squalor,” she said. “This needs to see the light of day. Or it’ll just stay the same.”