Sterling Manor tenants win massive repairs from landlords

The first round of our nine-month fight with Cornell & Associates has ended in victory for the Sterling Manor Tenants Committee and SeaSol. To satisfy our demands, the landlords have so far spent over $50,000 on an ongoing large-scale project to fix the problems of mold and decay that have long plagued the Sterling Manor apartments in north Seattle, causing health problems and triggering one of SeaSol’s most ambitious campaigns to date. “It’s important not to be intimidated into allowing our rights to be violated,” says a member of the Tenants’ Committee. “It’s hard to decide to get involved in a fight, but in the end you can do anything with support. We did it.”

Cornell & Associates, which manages Sterling Manor, is one of the biggest residential landlords in Seattle. We knew from the outset that they might not care about tenants getting sick due to lack of maintenance, as long as it didn’t hurt their business. However, we had no idea of the level of hostility with which they would react to our demands for mold inspection and repairs.

Within a few days of the August 2013 demand delivery, Cornell & Associates launched eviction attempts against two Sterling Manor tenants who had signed onto the demand letter. In response, hundreds of “Don’t rent here!” warning posters went up around Cornell-run apartment buildings, replaced over and over as management scrambled to keep removing them. Online ratings of Cornell buildings plummeted as people posted dozens of candid reviews, and Sterling Manor’s official photos on became close-ups of the mold and bedbugs in the building.

We held pickets outside Cornell’s offices on a weekly basis, displaying a huge “Cornell is a slumlord” banner. Delegations visited the neighbors of Cornell executive Bart Flora and of the manager of Sterling Manor, letting them know about the slumlords in their midst. SeaSol’s allies in Florida even brought the message to the neighborhood of Sterling Manor’s owner, visiting the small beach-front town where he was spending the fall and winter.

We stopped one the evictions by fundraising to pay off a disputed utility bill. The other eviction order was eventually dropped because the tenant, Paula, had been planning to move anyway. But she remained active in the fight: “Even though they tried to evict me, I decided to continue supporting the fight, so that the next people to move in wouldn’t have to suffer like we did,” Paula says. “I still have health problems even after moving out.”

Some tenants were intimidated by this retaliation, but the most active Tenant Committee members became more determined than ever. One tenant joined the SeaSol organizing committee. Seeing that the eviction attempts weren’t stopping us, the company resorted to its next tactic, hiring a law firm to sue SeaSol and three individual SeaSol members.

Their lawsuit was designed to make our people afraid to be seen on the picket lines. First one individual member was sued, then a second, then a third, with the documents listing a series of not-yet-named “John & Jane Doe” defendants. Their lawyer showed up at one of our pre-picket meet-ups bearing a thick stack of lawsuit papers and photographed of people’s faces. He lectured us loudly (until we shut him down) about how, if we failed to respond to the lawsuit, we would automatically owe Cornell huge sums of money and our credit would be ruined forever. He seemed to assume that we—an organization with no funding, no office, no staff—would not be able to cope with a lawsuit.

He should have known better. SeaSol has already been sued once before, by Lorig Associates in 2010, and we carried on and won our direct action campaign, all while fending off their legal attacks with the help of some great pro-bono lawyers. This time around we were stronger and better prepared. Their claims were baseless: essentially Cornell told the court that we were hurting their business by lying about mold problems at Sterling Manor. And yet we had photos of mold-covered walls, and even inspection reports from the American Lung Association which showed excessively high moisture levels. Within weeks, we secured excellent legal counsel (BJT Legal’s Brendan Donckers, who had defended us against Lorig), and raised money for legal costs.

The pickets at Cornell’s offices, which they were going to great legal expense to try to stop, did not stop. Neither did the posters, nor the embarrassing neighborhood protests. We also sent letters to dozens of landlords who employed Cornell to manage their buildings. According to court documents, one landlord fired Cornell.

The first clear sign that we were winning was when the owner of Sterling Manor, Richard Herman, made a personal visit to the building. Soon after, a series of major repairs began, including replacing water damaged carpets and doors, fixing leaks, replacing sheetrock and remodeling apartments, remodeling kitchens and bathrooms to prevent mold, and replacing the roof.

Unfortunately the landlords did not bring in an independent mold inspector prior to starting the repair work. However, based on tenants’ observations, we have reason to believe that this is a genuine and substantial effort to fix the mold problems, unlike the superficial work (like painting over the mold) that had been the rule before our fight. At this point over $50,000 has already gone into these repairs, according to court documents submitted by Cornell & Associates’ lawyers, with promises that the work will continue.

Cornell’s lawsuit received an unfavorable judgment in court on April 4th, 2014, which they are appealing. We hope this will be a lesson to other businesses and institutions who think they can use the legal system to squash collective action.

Assuming the ongoing and promised repairs are carried out and there is no further retaliation, we are declaring victory in our campaign against Cornell and Associates. Given Cornell’s size and reputation, as well as our ongoing relationship with the tenants, we may well have to fight them again. But for now, it’s time to celebrate a hard-earned victory. Thanks to everyone who’s helped carry SeasSol to one of our biggest victories yet!

Victory in Wage Theft Fight against the Bombay Grill

demand delivery at Bombay Grill  Bombay Grill pays up

José endured seven months as an underpaid cook at the Bombay Grill in the University District, receiving hourly wages between 81 cents and $4. Adding insult to injury, he faced threats and intimidation from bosses Glen Quadros and Kailash Upadhyay on a regular basis. Because his wages were insufficient for rent anywhere else, José had to sleep on the floor of the filthy restaurant during the heat of summer (which Glen called “room and board”).

After seeing a SeaSol sticker at his local laundromat, José decided to stand up against his bosses and fight back using direct action. He called SeaSol and we voted to take on his fight.

On January 4, 2014, a large group of SeaSolers filled the Bombay Grill to support José as he delivered a demand to his former bosses. José and SeaSol demanded payment of the equivalent of one month’s stolen wages, which came to $2,261.30. Glen ignored the letter, looking with condescension at the faces surrounding him, as a waitress picked it up and read it aloud. During the two weeks following the demand delivery, Glen and Kailash neglected to pay José the portion of his wages he had demanded. As we knew the Bombay Grill would likely be closing down very soon, there was a degree of urgency in SeaSol’s approach to this fight which influenced major decisions we made at meetings.

In the following weeks, SeaSol’s campaign against the wage thieves Glen and Kailash escalated from small flyerings and posterings around the restaurant to larger, noisier pickets. Our largest picket was on February 14th; we turned away many Valentine’s Day customers with high-energy chants and noisemaking, leaving Glen and Kailash visibly upset at their loss of profits for the night and acting like fools in their parking lot. We turned away the majority of their business during every action, and the bosses slowly began to accept that José and SeaSol were not going away until the demand was met.

Throughout the fight, the bosses at the Bombay Grill gave us the run-around, claiming they wanted to meet up and pay at least once a week and then trying to negotiate paying a lesser amount, creepily trying to get José alone in the restaurant with them, and trying to talk José into “not telling anyone” about the conditions he faced working in their restaurant. On Friday February 21, 2014, the sleazy Glen and Kailash set up a meeting with SeaSol and José yet again, writing a check for the full demand. Immediately afterward, as José went to cash the check, the greedy and stupid bosses walked smirking out of the bank. They had canceled the check, and thought their problems were solved.

At noon the following day, a dozen SeaSolers showed up for a picket of the Bombay Grill’s lunch buffet. With this, Glen realized that he and his partner in crime had not outsmarted us, and went to the bank to get José a cashier’s check for the full amount of the demand, which José walked away with that same day. Thanks to everyone who participated in this fight! Victory is ours!

Join Us!

Seattle Solidarity (“SeaSol”) is a volunteer network of working people who believe in standing up for our rights. Our goal is to support our fellow workers’ strikes and struggles, build solidarity, and organize to deal with specific job, housing, and other problems caused by the greed of the rich and powerful. Join us!  Let’s fight to win.

Problems with your boss or landlord? Get in touch.

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“Don’t Rent” campaign builds despite landlord violence

It has been over four months since Danica walked into NW Apartments’ offices with a crowd of supporters and calmly handed them a letter demanding that they return her stolen money. Since that time hundreds of current and prospective renters have not only heard her story, but also learned about NW Apartments’ broader pattern of abuse against other current and former tenants. Most recently, Danica and other members of SeaSol could be found outside of one of NW Apartments’ more visible buildings on Capitol Hill, the Casa Del Rey, handing out festive “” balloons and peanut butter “no-slumlord” cookies to tenants and passers by. The popular support was overwhelming and dozens of people took the “Do Not Rent from NW Apartments” pledge bringing the total count up to–who knows how many.

So, how is NW Apartments responding to these sorts of peaceful demonstrations? They are proudly demonstrating their complete lack of professionalism at every opportunity. The property manager at Danica’s old building, the Manchester Arms, has been filling up pitchers of water and dumping them on SeaSol members from the safety of his balcony. If only NW Apartments was equally dedicated to keeping water OUT of their tenant’s apartments maybe this whole situation could have been avoided! Needless to say, the posters continued to go up despite his immature antics (incidentally, dumping water on people is considered assault, and is an arrestable offense) and other tenants leaned out their windows to express their support for us and apologize on behalf of their property manager. More concerning are the violent threats from an employee at another NW Apartments building, the Tuscany. Here a NW Properties employee saw a SeaSol member putting up posters and threatened that he would “fuck them up” if he catches them again.

We will not be intimidated by NW Apartments. While we do not enjoy being threatened and attacked, it does make it clearer than ever to us as well as to those we are trying to reach just what kind of company we’re dealing with. We will continue to do everything within our power to spread the word about NW Apartments’ dubious business practices and thuggish behavior until they agree to do right by Danica.

Organized tenants fight back against Cornell & Associates

A few weeks ago a group of tenants contacted SeaSol because they were fed up with the unsanitary conditions and unresponsive management at Sterling Manor, an apartment complex in North Seattle. For months the tenants had reportedproblems including extensive mold, leaks, broken or missing appliances, and signs of bedbugs. Property managers ignored them, doing nothing to fix the most serious issues. The mold was the worst problem. Several tenants and their children were chronically sick, and some of their belongings were ruined. One of the tenants remembered that SeaSol had previously supported a relative in a fight against an abusive landlord, and thought that we could help get much-needed repairs and cleaning done at Sterling Manor.

The tenants started meeting with SeaSol, and went door to door in their apartment building to gather the support of their neighbors. Together, we wrote a demand letter addressed to Cornell & Associates, the company that manages Sterling Manor, giving them two weeks to hire a professional mold remediation company.More than half of the residents of the building signed on in support of the newly formed Sterling Manor Tenants’ Committee. The demand delivery went down on Thursday, August 22. Two dozen SeaSol supporters accompanied members of the Tenants Committee, occupying the offices of Cornell & Associates to hand-deliver the letter to property manager Susana Manio in front of her bosses.

Cornell & Associates reacted immediately, notifying all the Sterling Manor tenants that they would be performing a “routine” inspection of their units. Long-time tenants in the building say this is the first time the managers had ever done this kind of inspection. Though property manager Susana acknowledged extensive mold and other issues in several units, she made no concrete plans to address the worst problems, much less to hire a professional mold remediation service.

Then Cornell & Associates attacked. Two tenants who had signed the demand letter with the Sterling Manor Tenants’ Committee and SeaSol received 10-Day “Comply or Vacate” notices for long-standing issues that the managers had previously ignored. One tenant on a fixed income was hit with a $600 bill for unpaid water bills that management had previously said she didn’t have to pay due to protracted repairs to her apartment. (Tenants report a suspicious pattern of high water bills, leaks, flooding, and mold throughout the building.) Another tenant, from whom Susana has been accepting rent for months, was told to vacate because her name is not on the apartment lease, which was signed by a relative who has since had to leave the country.

Needless to say, it is clear that Cornell & Associates’ intent is to use any pretext to evict as many organized tenants as possible while intimidating those who remain. This kind of retaliation is illegal under state law, and neither the Sterling Manor Tenants’ Association or SeaSol will stand for it. Our fight is just getting started, and we’ll keep it up until the retaliation stops and tenants at Sterling Manor get the respect and healthy living conditions they deserve.