As a single mother of four kids, losing her apartment was hard enough for Natasha Pabon. But then came another brutal blow: $3,500 in charges from the property manager for damages and other fees. 

It was a cost that 35-year-old Pabon — evicted over a conflict her daughter had with a neighbor — could not afford. Not only was she having to forfeit her $1,155 security deposit, but the property manager at Fern Ridge apartments in Olympia was charging her for things she didn’t think she should have to cover, like replacing blinds and painting cabinets. She was particularly upset that she was charged $300 for “general cleaning” even though Pabon, who works as a cleaner, knew the place was spotless. The manager also charged her nearly $900 in attorneys fees, according to documents Pabon provided to InvestigateWest, despite nothing having been filed in court.

Fern Ridge did not return a message seeking comment.

But Pabon has few options to make her case that these fees are unreasonable. Housing providers and landlords argue the current system in Washington largely works as intended, allowing disputes to be resolved in small-claims courts. 

That route would require Pabon to make time to file a complaint and attend a hearing. Then, she must argue convincingly — likely for the first time — against a landlord or housing company. 

“It’s just ridiculous how this all just transpired,” Pabon said. “They want to evict you and then they want to put you in an even worse situation.” 

Tenant advocates argue that Washington’s law doesn’t adequately protect tenants from unreasonable damage charges that saddle them with debt and stymie their efforts to find a new place to live. They tried in the last legislative session to change state law to better clarify what landlords can charge for, but were unsuccessful.

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But they say there’s urgency to protect renters from such charges, particularly now in a perfect storm of low vacancy rates and rising evictions now that a two-year moratorium has expired.

This April, 126 evictions were filed in King County — a nearly 1,400% increase over the eight filings in April 2020.

Terri Anderson, statewide policy director for the Tenants Union of Washington, said the issue is one of the most common the group’s tenant hotline receives. And Scott Crain, an attorney with the nonprofit Northwest Justice Project, which provides free legal assistance to tenants, says it hears from renters dealing with what they feel are unreasonable damage charges “all the time.” 

“People really don’t get their deposit back these days,” Crain says. “It’s a real, problematic statewide issue for renters.” 

Defining “wear and tear”

Once tenants move out, housing providers in Washington have 21 days to return the deposit. If they are withholding part of it or asking to recover damage costs exceeding the deposit amount, they must provide a “full and specific” statement explaining why, per the state’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act. They cannot charge tenants for “normal wear and tear resulting from ordinary use of the premises.” 

But the “normal wear and tear” standard isn’t explicitly defined in state law. That can create confusion between landlords and renters, said Sarah Nagy, a staff attorney at Columbia Legal Services. 

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Do scuffs on the carpet meet that definition? What about dirty drip pans, or burnt-out lightbulbs? 

The lack of clarity in Washington, Nagy argued, opens the door for bad actors to take advantage of low-income tenants. 

“It’s completely up to any given landlord to determine themselves what’s the legitimate claim for damage,” Nagy said. “And you have to go to a third-party adjudicator like a small claims court to get any clarity on that.” 

Going to small-claims court, however, is a time-consuming barrier for many renters. Even though attorneys aren’t allowed in small-claims court, renters can feel outgunned if going up against a landlord or property management company in front of a judge. 

Crain, with Northwest Justice Project, said he has a hard time advising renters to fight unreasonable charges in court because “everyone has a different definition” of wear and tear. 

“You can’t predict what happens when you go to court, which is one of the failures of the law,” Crain says. “You want predictability.” 

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But if the tenant is unable to pay, the other option isn’t much better. If the housing provider sends the damage costs to collections, it can severely hamper a renter’s ability to find new housing, since it would appear on any routine credit check. 

Of course, some renters do successfully fight questionable charges in court. Still, the experience can weigh heavily on them. 

Robert Elon Mix, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran who has diabetes, had been evicted and was homeless when a $5,000 bill for damages to his former apartment was sent to a collections agency. The apartment complex he had lived in had changed ownership and wouldn’t allow Mix to pay rent in two separate checks, based on when he received his Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits.

“Not a day went by when I didn’t get some type of crap from these people,” Mix said. 

Mix contacted Crain, who helped him win a case that saw the damage charges reduced to zero after arguing the company discriminated against Crain based on his disability. 

But losing his housing, being harassed by debt collectors and battling in court brought back Mix’s depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which he’d long battled since Vietnam. 

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“And it hasn’t gotten any better,” he said. 

Bill fails in Legislature

Mix was one of several people who testified in favor of House Bill 1300, introduced in 2021 by Rep. My-Linh Thai, D-Bellevue, aimed at preventing landlords from billing tenants for unreasonable damages. 

The bill clarified “normal wear and tear” as any damages due to aging or deterioration caused by simply living, and it specified that deposits generally cannot be withheld for things like carpet cleaning or replacing light fixtures, equipment, appliances and furnishings if their condition had not been documented at the start of tenancy. It also calls for landlords to provide receipts of any work they are charging tenants for. 

“The effect would be to clarify what a landlord can charge for before the parties are forced to take on the time and expense of small claims court,” says Nagy, with Columbia Legal Services. 

But HB 1300 has gone nowhere in each of the last two legislative sessions. Initially, housing providers strongly objected to other aspects of the bill that they thought were impractical, such as a provision requiring a walk-through assessing damages shortly before the move-out date because furniture or wall hangings present during an inspection could hide damage. 

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“Rep. Thai’s proposal presents logistical challenges and ultimately creates the potential for a contentious parting of ways between landlord and tenant when there otherwise is a good relationship,” said Cory Brewer, vice president of residential operations for Windermere Property Management, who testified against the bill.

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Pabon, the tenant in Olympia, found a new place, but she had to pay a higher security deposit because of the damage charges from her previous tenancy. 

That, combined with the application fees, completely drained her savings. 

“It just means you have nothing at the end of this,” Pabon said. 

InvestigateWest is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Visit invw.org/newsletters to sign up for weekly updates.