Dear landlord: Go to jail

From eviction to conviction.

A UNIVERSITY DISTRICT TENANT—call him Ishmael—returned to his boarding house after work last August to find that his landlord had locked him out without a court-approved eviction order—an illegal but all-too-common occurrence. Even worse, his possessions were nowhere to be found. Much to his surprise, Ishmael says, the police officer who responded to his call for help told him there was nothing she could do: It was a civil matter.

"She was 300 percent wrong," he now says. Unlike most tenants in such situations,Ishmael (who asks not to be identified for fear of discrimination by other landlords) found recourse; he and fellow tenant Tom Walker pressured police and city prosecutors to act on a city law that defines such a lockout as criminal harassment. Late last month, the two finally saw results. Pro-tem Municipal Court Judge Eileen Farley sentenced Eric Hilton (who claims he is merely the building's manager, but whom the jury found to be "an owner") to two days in jail. This may not seem like much, and Hilton has filed an appeal. But tenant advocates believe it is the first time a Seattle landlord has received jail time for any offense. Hilton, moreover, is not just any landlord; for a decade, he has figured in numerous housing-code and tenant-harassment complaints. Through an employee, Hilton declined to be interviewed.

"Tenants don't usually get justice," says Arlen Olson, a project coordinator at the Seattle Tenants' Union who says he averages a call a week about an illegal lockout. "These tenants had the energy to fight for that. It took amazing tenacity."

Olson also believes the case has blazed the trail for other tenants. This week, says Seattle Police spokesperson Rebecca Hale, police are distributing a new training bulletin that makes clear that landlord-tenant cases "can and do involve criminal activity as well as civil violations." Hale is fuzzy as to why police haven't recognized this fact before, since the harassment statute has been on the books since 1987: "It was mostly a policy interpretation. Instead of having our police officers go out and investigate every landlord-tenant dispute, we adopted more of a problem-solving approach."

WHAT THAT APPEARED TO MEAN, as in the case of Ishmael, is that police would tell locked-out tenants that they could sue their landlord. "What are you talking about sue him," Ishmael says. "I am a homeless person. I don't even have clothes to change into." He slept in his car the first night, then found a motel.

Ishmael and Walker, a 28-year-old college dropout who works nights as a hotel employee, say they never intended to be tenant activists. For many months, both had lived happily enough at 5622 15th Avenue NE, which, like most of the properties with which Hilton is associated, is a small house subdivided into many one-room units. (Hilton has often declared that he manages but does not own the buildings, which are listed as belonging to various limited partnerships. Tax records show he formerly owned the 15th Avenue property but transferred it to the "5622 Limited Partnership" in 1996.) Some 16 people lived in the house, according to Walker, sharing one and a half kitchens and a single bathroom and paying a little more than $200 a month.

Last summer, however, they say that they and other tenants complained to Hilton about a drug peddler living in the building. Hilton eventually evicted the dealer, they add, but not before the dealer broke into Ishmael's apartment and stole the money order that Ishmael intended to use for rent. A month went by, and Ishmael still owed the rent; he says he objected to the late fees that Hilton demanded.

ISHMAEL KNEW HE OWED HILTON money, but says he had no inkling that he would be thrown out until he arrived at his door and found that his key did not fit the lock. To evict a tenant legally, a landlord must notify the tenant of his intention and prove "just cause" in court, a three- to five-week process.

Faced with police inaction, many tenants would have cut their losses and moved on. Ishmael was driven by indignation. "The act was really past the limit," he says. "It was like it was the 15th-century age of the king." Walker says he couldn't abide seeing his landlord "picking on other people." The two complained to the North Precinct watch commander and SPD Internal Affairs, faxing them a copy of the harassment statute. "My luck was good. I found a nice person [at Internal Affairs]," Ishmael says. About a week later, he got his property back, and police agreed to file a complaint.

Ishmael says that his "second barrier" was convincing City Attorney Mark Sidran's office to prosecute the case. Again, he and Walker faxed a copy of the harassment statute; they wrote Sidran and called repeatedly.

Michael Finkle, a prosecution team leader in Sidran's office, won't say whether the tenants' pressure got the case moving. Finkle maintains that his office is willing to prosecute any case against a landlord with sufficient evidence, but that such cases tend to lack corroborating witnesses and physical evidence. Still, it's unclear why Finkle's office would need more than it had in the Hilton case: a police report of a lockout and readily accessible proof that no eviction order had been filed. In 1996, the most recent year for which statistics are available, city attorneys prosecuted only six of the 37 complaints of landlord harassment they received.

Ishmael and Walker are now settled into new apartments with landlords they like. And Walker has emerged from the tangle with Hilton as an informal tenant organizer in the U District. He's compilingtenant complaints and looking up court records on landlords. He believes "the city has become a silent partner of these slumlords" by failing to aggressively prosecute them. But the recent police response leaves him "cautiously optimistic."

 
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