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News / Business / Clark County Business

‘These are predatory fees. There’s no question about that’: ‘Junk fees’ burden renters in Clark County

Hidden, often random charges are tacked onto rent, causing strife

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 14, 2024, 6:06am
4 Photos
Cheyonna Lewis looks through her burn pile of mail at her house in east Vancouver. Lewis is one of many renters in Clark County dealing with junk fees.
Cheyonna Lewis looks through her burn pile of mail at her house in east Vancouver. Lewis is one of many renters in Clark County dealing with junk fees. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Fees hit Cheyonna Lewis when she was already on the edge. Rent has doubled for her Vancouver home, where she’s lived with her children and pets for 18 years. She’s been scraping by with the help of a housing voucher.

Invest West Property Management added two additional fees to her lease last year — $45 a month for pet rent and $50 a month for a mysterious “Residents Benefit Package.”

Lewis, a disabled single mother on a fixed income, had to find almost $100 extra per month to stay in her home because her housing voucher can’t be used for the fees, which are separate from rent.

So-called junk fees — hidden and often random fees landlords tack onto rent — have become more common since the pandemic, housing experts say. Some states protect their renters from these kinds of fees. But not Washington.

GET HELP

If you fear eviction, call the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program at 360-334-4007 or go to https://ccvlp.org/eviction-help/ or call the Northwest Justice Project’s eviction defense line at 1-855-657-8387 to connect with an attorney.

People who need housing and shelter assistance should call Council for the Homeless’ Housing Hotline at (360) 695-9677, which operates from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on holidays and weekends.

“Nothing even requires a landlord to tell the tenant what it’s for,” said Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy at Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “You can just charge a fee, and you can get away with it because the state has failed to regulate this.”

Lewis’ house is cold in winter because many of its windows have been cracked for years. Lewis burns mail, including pay-or-vacate notices, in her fireplace to stay warm and save on electricity.

She reminds herself that the notice saying she hasn’t paid her pet rent or Resident Benefit Package is likely an empty threat. Under Washington law, a landlord cannot evict a tenant for missing fee payments if they aren’t part of the rent. But that doesn’t stop landlords from sending the heart-stopping notices.

“The anxiety of having a notice would make anyone try to hustle up the money,” Lewis said. “They send you into this anxiety state — ‘Oh God, I have to come up with this money so that I can take care of this and I’m not unhoused.’ ”

She and her son survive on just $570 a month from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families after a car accident left Lewis disabled and unable to work about 20 years ago. Vancouver Housing Authority began paying her full rent in October after determining that she couldn’t afford to pay any portion.

“I can’t afford my life. I used to be a work-abled adult,” Lewis said, fighting back tears. “People say, ‘Why can’t you figure it out and pull yourself up by your bootstraps?’ At this point, I don’t even have boots.”

The fees are wringing her dry, asking for extra money she doesn’t have, she said. Although she’s on a payment plan, she owes more in fees than she makes in a month and a half.

She doesn’t understand why Invest West Management is asking her for more money now. In 17 years, she’s never had to pay pet rent, although she did pay a pet deposit in case her dog and cat damage the house.

The Resident Benefit Package requires her to pay for services including air conditioning filter delivery, maintenance, an online portal for rent and background screenings for employees.

Lewis’ rental doesn’t have air conditioning, and most of the benefits seem like services a landlord should already provide, she said. However, the fees are entirely legal.

“Whenever they decide they want to add something, they can, and that’s scary,” she said.

The Columbian asked Invest West Management why it charges these fees and delivers pay-or-vacate notices for failing to pay them. A representative said the company has no comment.

‘Predatory fees’

Even as they raise rents, landlords have also been increasing their use of fees, lawyers and advocates say.

“Somebody got wise to the fact that this is kind of an untapped market, increasing your profit margins,” said Northwest Justice Project attorney Carl Snodgrass, who often represents people facing problems with these fees. “These are predatory fees. There’s no question about that.”

Sue Denfeld, president of the Clark County Rental Association, said landlords need to charge some fees to maintain their properties and keep up with operating costs. Landlords are also restricted on what they can charge back to the renter through the security deposit, she said.

But because there are no state regulations on fees, landlords can charge them for anything.

Clark County renters have received fees for notice delivery, potted plants on their porch, having dry grass in summer, hooking up laundry and dishwashing machines, paying rent through a required online portal and swimming pools with no water, according to lawyers, advocates and renters interviewed by The Columbian.

“It’s coming from all fronts,” Snodgrass said.

Thomas of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said she’s noticed a trend of corporations offering landlords a cut of their profits if they require tenants to pay for the company’s service. One example of this is garbage valet service — requiring renters to pay for someone to pick up their trash outside their door instead of bringing it to the dumpster.

“It’s really disturbing, and it’s something we’re seeing more and more as other entities are trying to figure out ways to make money off of tenants,” she said.

Fees for renting month to month have especially weighed down low-income renters, Thomas said as she scrolled through a Vancouver resident’s rent increase notice charging a $300 fee for paying month-to-month on top of a $548 rent increase.

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Month-to-month fees can force someone into a long-term lease, she said. Landlords can’t evict someone renting month-to-month without cause, according to Washington law. But landlords can end a tenancy at the end of an initial six-month to yearlong lease without cause.

And if a renter falls behind, there’s no limit to how much landlords can charge for late fees.

“Late fees on top of all of that when somebody is behind on rent is just a way to get a person further and further behind,” Thomas said.

Late fees and pay-or-vacate notices for missed fee payments can overwhelm renters who think they’ll be evicted for not paying the fees. Lawyers recommend reaching out for legal help if this happens and prioritizing paying rent, which may include utilities, since that’s the only nonpayment someone can be evicted for.

Cracking down

Besides harming low-income renters, hidden fees can influence competition. Landlords can advertise lower rents, giving them a competitive advantage over other landlords, and increase their incomes with fees later.

They also open loopholes with public funds.

Housing authorities calculate whether a landlord paid through a voucher is charging reasonable rent by comparing it with others rentals in the market. This means a landlord could hypothetically receive the maximum rent a housing authority would pay while charging the tenant fees beyond what the housing authority pays.

The Biden-Harris administration announced in July it would crack down on these “junk fees” by working with listing services to include accurate rental costs up front, researching how to take on a nationwide effort against junk fees, and encouraging states to adopt their own protective laws.

Several states, such as California, Colorado and Connecticut, have laws prohibiting certain fees and requiring leases include all fees up front. Seattle limits fees for late rent payment to a maximum of $10 per month and bans fees for delivering notices.

The problem is that fees can always go by a different name. That’s the issue some affordable housing advocates have with Washington Senate Bill 6064, which proposes to cap pet security deposits at $150 and prohibit pet rent.

“You’re basically just telling the landlord they can’t call the fee that they’re charging the tenant pet rent,” Thomas said.

More comprehensive legislation is required to prevent fees, Thomas said.

House Bill 2114, a controversial bill proposing rent stabilization, would include all fees within a 7 percent rent increase cap.

Advocates for landlords say the rent and fee cap would reduce Washington’s housing stock, forcing landlords struggling to keep up with operating costs to sell rental properties.

HB 2114 passed through the House Tuesday night. Its fate is now in senators’ hands.

“Until the state takes action on this, these excessive fees and the excessive rent increases will continue to hurt the over 1 million renter households in Washington state,” Thomas said.

Lewis is terrified that she might be compelled to leave the home where she raised her three boys. Being more than $1,000 behind on fees, she doesn’t feel like the Resident Benefit Package is benefiting her.

“Benefits so good, you may never want to leave,” proclaims an Invest West Management advertisement.

Lewis and her 9-year-old son don’t want to leave. But those “benefits” may force them to.

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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