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News / Business / Clark County Business

Rights without a remedy: Washington law creates dilemma for low-income renter at mobile home park on Highway 99

Unit in need of repairs, but woman can't enforce action because she's behind on rent

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: December 13, 2023, 6:05am
6 Photos
Casey Jewell, left, and her son, Charley Jewell, live in a mobile home with a large hole in the kitchen ceiling. Cassie Jewell said the hole formed last spring and has since grown.
Casey Jewell, left, and her son, Charley Jewell, live in a mobile home with a large hole in the kitchen ceiling. Cassie Jewell said the hole formed last spring and has since grown. (Photos by James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A pair of pork chops wait in Casey Jewell’s freezer. They’re one of her son’s favorite foods, and she’d like to cook them for him.

She can’t, though, because a hole has opened in the kitchen ceiling. Layers of drywall and insulation are missing, revealing the silver-colored roof to her mobile home. Jewell said she’s afraid particles drifting from the hole will waft into her food.

The hole has been there for most of the year. Jewell has told her property manager. She rents her unit at Hidden RV and Mobile Home Park on Highway 99, north of Vancouver city limits. The company that owns the park, Hidden Village LLC, is governed by Michael and Denise Werner of Vancouver, according to public records on file with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office. The Werners own several companies involved in the operation and management of mobile-home and RV parks. The company declined to respond to The Columbian’s inquiries.

Many low-income renters continue to live in conditions like Jewell’s because of a Washington law. While landlords have a duty to keep units habitable, if they don’t, tenants must be current on rent and utilities to enforce a demand for repairs, according to RCW 59.18.080.

How to get help

“They have the right to safe and habitable housing, but the problem is that as the law’s set up, it’s a right that they can’t really exercise,” said Carl Snodgrass, an attorney for Northwest Justice Project.

Jewell owes more than $8,000 in rent from a period of unemployment in 2021 to 2022. She said she is on a repayment plan. She pays $975 a month for her unit — $925 for rent and $50 to pay back what she owes.

Jewell, who works full time at Fred Meyer, said a majority of her income goes toward rent, with the rest barely covering necessities, such as utilities and food.

“I’m just living day by day. I’m never comfortable,” Jewell said. “I never know when I will be homeless.”

On the edge

Jewell has experienced homelessness off and on most of her adult life. While living in California, she recalls standing at intersections, holding a sign and asking for money so she could keep a roof over her family’s head. Before moving into her current residence, Jewell lived in her car for nine months.

She moved into her home right before the COVID-19 pandemic began. At the time, another company managed the mobile home park. Jewell said since she’s lived there, the park has had three different property management companies.

When Jewell moved into her home, she didn’t notice major problems, she said.

Then, in 2021, Jewell’s toilet stopped flushing properly. She said she alerted the property management company in charge at that time. Later that year, a hole formed in the ceiling of her son’s bedroom, right over the head of his twin bed.

Her son, Charley Jewell, 22, patched the hole himself, but he began spending the night at his girlfriend’s house for fear the ceiling would collapse on him while he slept.

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The kitchen hole formed in April, Casey Jewell said. From October to December, the size of the hole has expanded, something The Columbian observed over a series of visits to Jewell’s home. As of Thursday, the hole had expanded to the point it was separating parts of her kitchen cabinets from the wall.

“I go to work and put a smile on my face like nothing is wrong,” Casey Jewell said. “But every time it rains, I’m scared I’m going to come home and my whole roof will be on the floor.”

A Columbian reporter witnessed Charley Jewell get shocked when he touched the insulation near the kitchen hole Thursday.

Casey Jewell said the current property management firm offered her a tarp to cover her mobile home, but she never received it. She said she bought her own.

Charley Jewell said he tried to drape it over the mobile home, but he couldn’t cover the damage completely because he was afraid he would fall through the roof.

Catch-22

Washington law advises people to make maintenance requests in written form, specifically a letter. On Sept. 7, Charley Jewell sent an email to management with photos of the two holes in the ceiling and the broken toilet.

Casey Jewell said she verbally told current and past property managers about her home’s condition, but they never entered the unit to inspect the problems.

“I was told I needed to start paying them back … but nine months of paying them back and nothing,” Cassie Jewell said. She has been on the Section 8 housing voucher waitlist since 2018.

Snodgrass said Jewell’s predicament isn’t uncommon for low-income renters.

“There’s this Catch-22,” Snodgrass said.

He explained that, even though it’s illegal for property management companies to decline to make repairs, there are essentially no consequences under the current law if they choose to ignore repair requests for tenants who are behind on rent — or evict them because they’re behind on rent.

“It’s an impossible situation to be stuck in,” Snodgrass said.

With rising rents and stagnant wages, low-income renters are more likely to fall behind. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 79 percent of Vancouver’s extremely low-income renter households pay more than 50 percent of their income to rent. And 19 percent of renters in high-poverty neighborhoods fell behind on their rent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

“People don’t come over anymore. … The only thing I do is I come home, go to work, come home,” Casey Jewell said. “I don’t like being alone.”

Little incentive

Tenants who have unfulfilled maintenance requests have several options, none of them great.

Tenants can move, but that requires finding another affordable unit, as well as fronting moving costs and security deposits.

Tenants may be able to convince property managers to lower the rent, if conditions are bad enough. Tenants can also file a lawsuit, but they still risk eviction for owing past rent.

“It’s a stain on your record,” Snodgrass said.

Washington law outlines another option: “repair and deduct.” Renters can fix the damage themselves and then deduct some of the cost from their rent.

However, renters must be completely up to date on rent to exercise this option. And renters who live paycheck to paycheck aren’t likely to have money to make repairs upfront.

According to a study by the U.S. Census Pulse Survey, 231,388 Washington residents in 2022 were pressured to move from their homes due to a landlord not making repairs.

Casey Jewell said she feels hopeless. On a recent rainy December day, she stood in her kitchen as an assortment of pots, pans and buckets caught water leaking from the hole in the ceiling. Next to her, a piece of paper informing her that her rent will go up in February is taped to the fridge.

“I’m just giving up, and I don’t want to,” she said.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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