Renter’s nightmare

City law fails to protect tenants' rights.

JOSEPH SKOLNIK doesn’t exactly have what you’d call an easy life. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he has drifted between Florida and Seattle, where his father, architect Art Skolnik, lives. Two years ago, with little more than a meager Social Security stipend and whatever was in his bank account, Joseph rented a 10-by-10-foot room in a dilapidated boarding house owned by Eric Hilton, the only Seattle landlord ever sent to jail for retaliating against a tenant. But the price—around $250 a month—was right, “and the heat was on,” Art Skolnik says. Since then, the Skolniks, Hilton, and city government have become embroiled in a battle that reveals much about the limitations of tenant protection in Seattle.

A few months after Joseph moved in, conditions at the filthy house at 4321 Fifth N.E., just blocks from $300,000 Wallingford bungalows, had deteriorated dramatically, to the point that “the door wouldn’t close, there was no security, and you couldn’t go out the back steps,” Art Skolnik says. Trash covered the lot, several doorknobs were broken or missing, the handrails on the stairs were broken, and there were no smoke detectors. Outraged, Skolnik called the city’s Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU) to complain. When Hilton got wind of his efforts, Skolnik says, the landlord retaliated by cutting off the gas, leaving his tenants without heat, a working stove, or hot water in the chill of February. The heat stayed off for four days, until DCLU inspectors issued an order to turn it on.

Two months later, DCLU inspectors returned. This time, they came with an ultimatum for Hilton: repair the building, which had deteriorated “to the extent that persons in or around the building are in serious jeopardy of life or limb,” according to the DCLU order, or the tenants must vacate it. Hilton didn’t do the repairs, and the tenants moved out in April 2001.

That’s when things really fell apart. According to city law, Hilton was supposed to pay all qualified tenants $2,000 in “relocation assistance” to help them find another place. Unfortunately, as Skolnik discovered, there was no way to force him to do so. “If you’re about to be evicted and you need to find a place to live quickly, that money is going to come in handy,” Skolnik says. While he waited for Hilton’s check to arrive, Skolnik found his son a new place downtown. The new apartment cost “easily twice as much” as Joseph’s old place, Skolnik says, but he figured the $2,000 in relocation assistance, plus a $100 penalty for every day Hilton failed to pay, would help make up the difference.

Except that, as it turned out, Skolnik wouldn’t get the penalty—the city would. That’s because, as DCLU compliance manager Karen White notes, the city can’t sue a landlord on a tenant’s behalf. “Unfortunately,” White says, that puts Skolnik “in the position of having to take civil action against Mr. Hilton himself.”

And Hilton, who was finally served with the city’s civil lawsuit last Friday, is so hard to sue, or even find, that Tenants Union director Arlen Olson describes him as “judgment-proof.” By sheltering his assets under various limited partnerships, City Council staffer Lisa Herbold explains, Hilton makes it appear that “he doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t have a car, he doesn’t even have any property,” including his own Bellevue home. In one proceeding, Hilton even used a public defender, claiming low income. Right now, the city is trying to sort out “who owns all those buildings” that Hilton operates, says Thom Castagna, the attorney working on the case for the city. Once they do that, the city can, in theory, condemn Hilton’s property and collect what he owes. But first, they have to get him into court. Currently, the city has four default judgments against the landlord—”because he didn’t show up to defend himself,” White says. If he doesn’t show for his next hearing on Dec. 11, the city can issue a warrant for his arrest.

While Hilton’s case demonstrates how easy it is for landlords to slip through the city’s regulatory net, tenants have no equivalent escape hatch. When a renter gets an order from the city to vacate, he has to leave immediately—often within 24 hours. The policy, tenants’ advocates say, is rigged against those who need relocation assistance the most—low-income renters, many of them just escaping homelessness. “The tenant is not eligible for money until he hands the keys back to the landlord,” says the Tenants Union’s Olson, “and after he hands the keys back to the landlord, his bargaining power is in the basement.”

DCLU says it’s trying to correct the problem by drafting legislation that would create a revolving fund to provide relocation assistance “when tenants need it,” White says. That fund would be replenished when the city collected from the landlord. It’s time the city did something, Olson says. “Maybe the city needs to wake up and realize landlords aren’t following the law because they have learned the city is afraid to go to the length it takes to prosecute them for these crimes.”