Washington state’s attorney general alleges a sorority charged University of Washington students for housing on Greek Row — even as they could not live in the house because of the pandemic.
The sorority violated the state’s emergency housing rules when it charged UW members $6,250 in housing fees last fall when members were not staying in the sorority house, Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote in a complaint filed Monday in King County Superior Court.
To students who failed to pay, the sorority allegedly warned the debt could be sent to collections.
Ferguson’s complaint alleges the costs violate an emergency rule barring rent charges when tenants can’t access their housing because of the pandemic.
The Tennessee-based sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi, or AOII, did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Attorney General’s Office investigated after nine UW students complained to the state.
“We are all college students, most of us living away from home for the first time,” one student wrote in her complaint. “AOII has taken advantage of that and made us believe that our only option is to pay whatever they tell us or else risk being sued or having our credit scores ruined.”
Sorority members signed agreements to pay housing fees before the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Attorney General’s Office. When the pandemic hit, many members were unable to live in the sorority’s Greek Row house, but the sorority still charged a reduced fee.
Invoices allegedly warned students could face late fees, suspension from the sorority, or having their account sent to collections if they did not pay.
As sorority members tried to find other housing, some “had to choose between paying market-rate rent and paying the housing costs and fees demanded by AOII,” Ferguson’s complaint said.
As part of the state’s eviction moratorium, landlords are prohibited from charging rent and fees when a tenant’s access to the housing was “prevented as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamation also bans late fees during the pandemic.
Sorority members agreed in February to pay about $12,200 for the school year for meals and housing to live in the Greek Row house, Ferguson’s complaint said. The sorority charged members who did not live in the house about $1,300 for food and use of the house. Up to 80 members can typically live in the house, according to the complaint.
After the pandemic hit, the sorority allowed just 10 members to live in the house during the spring quarter. Other members were offered a one-month discount on their fees, Ferguson said.
As the virus raged on, the sorority gave members the option of closing the house entirely last fall or allowing a limited number of members to live there. In all cases, members not living in the house would be charged a reduced fee, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
The students voted in September to close the house. The sorority then asked them to agree to pay $6,250.
“Students were only given options that violated the governor’s moratorium,” Ferguson’s office said in a news release.
Ferguson alleges the practices also violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act.
One student who has been a member of the sorority at UW for several years said in an interview the pressure to pay or face collections was “overwhelming,” sometimes causing her to break down in tears.
“Destroying my chances of getting a home in the future — that’s what I was scared of. Or not being able to lease a car that I needed.”
The student, who requested anonymity because she feared harming her relationships with others in the organization, said members “paid because they felt like they had to.”
“I hope if this is happening elsewhere, they feel empowered to stop it,” she said.
The Attorney General’s Office says it sent AOII a letter on Nov. 2 requesting the sorority stop collecting the charges and reimburse members, but the sorority continued billing students.
Students at San Jose State University raised similar concerns last year, calling on the sorority to allow students to break their housing contracts, according to a local news report.
In Washington, the Attorney General’s Office has received 6,580 complaints under the state’s eviction moratorium. Two other property owners have settled.
In May, a Nevada-based property-management company that issued eviction notices in Tacoma agreed to pay $350,000 to resolve a lawsuit. An Idaho low-income housing provider agreed to pay $50,000 after allegedly threatening Eastern Washington tenants with eviction.