Fed up with what they called a hazardous and predatory rental market in Bellingham, dozens of local tenants attended the first Community Conversation Potluck on Saturday hosted by Tenants Revolt, a newly formed group of renters' rights activists.
On lawyer Daniel Hornal's backyard porch, tenants of all ages and backgrounds shared stories of dangerous conditions they said they have experienced while living in Bellingham rental homes and apartments.
Stories of black mold being ripped from wall to wall, of houses burning down due to faulty wiring, of senior citizens dying in their apartments with no working air conditioning filled the backyard with grief, but also hope.
Scott Pattern, 34, has been renting and living in Bellingham for his entire life.
“I wasn’t surprised by anything I heard,” he said. “I’ve seen so many movements like [Tenants Revolt] start and then fizzle out in town, but to see a lawyer post his address in the paper and say, ‘Come to my place and speak’ — that was a very empowering moment when I realized we’re not alone.”
Hornal, 40, plans to represent Whatcom County tenants in a series of mass action lawsuits against some of the largest property management companies in the region. Hornal practiced law in Washington, D.C. specializing in tenants' rights, eviction defense and habitability issues before moving to his hometown of Bellingham several years ago.
Lawyer Daniel Hornal discusses potential mass action lawsuits against some of the largest property management companies in Whatcom County. Hornal said the scope of the lawsuits at this time will be for residents of Whatcom County, with claims dating back six years. (Nolan Baker/Cascadia Daily News)
A mass action lawsuit is different from the more common class action lawsuit because in a tenant-landlord relationship, every claimant has a unique damage they are seeking restitution for, Hornal said.
“Everybody has a different story,” Hornal said. “One person has black mold, another has a stove that doesn’t work, another person has a window that does not open.”
The fact that every claimant has a distinct complaint means the information-gathering process will be lengthy, but the more claimants against a single property management company, the more pressure it could place on that company to fix the issues rather than fighting the claims in court, Hornal said.
Hornal became involved in Tenants Revolt through Rebecca Quirke, a Bellingham tenant who lives in a property managed by Landmark Real Estate Management. Ten elements of Quirke’s home were in violation of Bellingham city code.
Quirke, who moved to Bellingham from Ohio in November 2021, realized that horrible living conditions and contempt for property management companies was par for the course for many renters.
“It’s not just Bellingham,” Quirke said to the crowd on Saturday, “but I’ve been renting for 20 years and this is the most egregious abuse of tenants I’ve ever seen.”
She decided to start Tenants Revolt, and with the help of Hornal, hopes to get as many renters as possible to file a claim and sign up.
Tenants Revolt is still in the information-gathering phase, asking for anyone who wants to join the suit to sign up on its website and fill out a claim form.
The new organization is also partnering with Bellingham Tenants Union and Community First Whatcom to help aid with logistics and organizational efforts. Community First Whatcom, formerly known as People First Bellingham, is a progressive action group that introduced City of Bellingham Initiatives 1–4 on the ballot in 2021.
Initiative 1, which related to housing and sought to expand tenant rights in the city, did not pass. Now, Community First Whatcom is hoping to get the word out about Tenants Revolt and what renters in Bellingham need to understand and defend their rights.
“At some point, it becomes cheaper to fix the problems than to pay the lawsuits, and that’s the goal,” Hornal said to a round of applause.
While it took a group of people sharing their collective grief, for Pattern, the meeting on Saturday was the first time in a long time that he’s seen collective hope, too, from a group of tenants.
“We felt like we were just treading water and we finally can sight a rescue ship on the horizon,” Pattern said. “I don’t know if it’s coming for us, and I don’t know if it’ll be able to help us, but I could finally see some optimism for the first time.”
This story was updated at 3:13 p.m. July 28 to clarify that Daniel Hornal moved back to Bellingham, where he grew up.