Irina found herself in a questionable situation with her landlord, who was also her employer. She cleaned and did landscaping work around the property for a wage and sporadic rent reductions. A month after moving into the apartment in August of 2014, Irina and her daughter began experiencing persistent headaches and stomach cramps. Her son came down with bronchitis and pneumonia. She reported these illnesses to her landlord, suspecting something in her apartment was making her family sick. Her landlord told her she was overreacting.
When things escalated, Irina started to stand up for her rights and for the safety of her family. Her landlord terminated the month-to-month lease without proper warning and threatened to initiate the eviction process if her family did not vacate immediately, forcing her and her two small children onto the street. She contacted many people: state Sen. Karen Kaiser (D-Kent), the Human Rights Commission and several lawyers who either required large cash advances or would not take her case because “Washington is a landlord state.”
So she ended up being evicted with nowhere to go. She is a student at Highline Community College, where she is working toward an associate of arts degree in community health and wellness. She’s been employed in the Kent School District for three years as an on-call Ukrainian/Russian interpreter.
After reaching out to Section 8, King County Housing Authority, McKinney Vento Family Support and Highline College, she and her two children spent Christmas in a shelter, which allowed them to be there for a restricted amount of time as long as they demonstrated need. This means, among other things, that Irina could not take a friend up on the offer to stay at his place while he and his wife were out of town for the holidays lest she jeopardize her spot at the shelter.
While the requirement to demonstrate need is understandable, it can also force people out of their communities and leave them relying more heavily on inadequate social services than they might need if friends or family are able to be of some — but not sufficient — help.
Communities have very little incentive to take responsibility for the homelessness crisis that is worsening every year.
Ultimately, laws that protect tenants remain insufficient. Low-income renters often struggle to find affordable, language-accessible lawyers to defend their cases.
We limp toward progress, finally resolving to do something about the ban on rent control that’s been in place since 1981. “Something,” in this case means, “ask the state to lift the ban” and stripping the resolution of any pro-rent-control language.
The mayor declares a state of emergency on homelessness, even though it’s not clear what concrete actions will come of this effort and funding.
The last time I was present for a “state of emergency,” it was at Denver International Airport because of record-busting snowfall. The mayor declared the emergency. Blankets, food and medical necessities arrived by truck within hours.
Yet, families such as Irina’s struggle on the streets — months after the mayor’s declaration in Seattle — because of the whims of predatory landlords and laws that offer little recourse.
It is time for us to stand up for vulnerable members of our community, to muster the political will to protect renters from landlords and property owners who have for too long been above the law and to protect those living outside from the elements.
Volunteers found 4,505 people sleeping on the streets in King County in January as part of the annual One Night Count of unsheltered people. If the number 4,505 doesn’t get your attention, perhaps putting a face on it will.
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community and published poet and essayist living in Seattle.