Sorority charged thousands in rent and late fees even though students could not safely live in sorority housing
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today filed a lawsuit against the collegiate sorority Alpha Omicron Pi for unlawfully charging University of Washington (UW) students more than $6,000 in rent even though the students could not access or live in sorority housing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alpha Omicron Pi, a national, Tennessee-based sorority, also illegally charged late fees and threatened students with suspensions of their sorority memberships and damage to their credit if they did not pay.
Alpha Omicron Pi owns the “Greek Row” house used as housing for the UW chapter members. The UW chapter house can house approximately 80 members. It includes a “porch room,” a large, open room with 26 bunkbeds, and smaller suites with space for four or eight women.
Ferguson’s lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asserts that the sorority’s demands for housing payments, threats and late fees violated Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency eviction moratorium. The governor’s emergency proclamation specifically prohibits landlords from charging rent to tenants when the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in those tenants losing access to the property. The governor’s moratorium also prohibits landlords from threatening to refer individuals who are unable to pay rent to collection agencies, and blocks landlords from charging late fees for past due rent.
Nine UW students complained to the Attorney General’s Office’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium enforcement team, via the office’s online complaint form. One student wrote in her complaint: “We are all college students, most of us living away from home for the first time. Alpha Omicron Pi has taken advantage of that and made us believe that our only option is to pay whatever they tell us or else risk being sued or having our credit scores ruined.”
“Tenants have protections for a reason,” Ferguson said. “Charging Washingtonians thousands of dollars for housing they cannot access due to a global pandemic is illegal — and wrong.”
Unlawful housing charges
In February 2020 — before the global pandemic struck — the sorority members signed housing agreements with the UW chapter covering the 2020 to 2021 academic year. Members living in the house were charged a $12,177 housing fee, which included meals and housing. Members living in their own housing were charged $1,334 for food and “non-residential” use of the chapter house.
As the pandemic first hit, Alpha Omicron Pi allowed only ten members to live in the house for spring quarter, from mid-March to June 2020. The members who did not live in the house during that time received a discount of one month’s worth of housing fees.
In September 2020, as the students were returning to school after summer break, the UW chapter members voted to close down the house completely for the upcoming school year. In advance of the vote, Alpha Omicron Pi gave the chapter members three options — and all of them violated the emergency proclamation:
- 56 members live in the house and pay the full housing fee, while the remaining non-resident members pay a reduced fee.
- 20 to 30 members can choose to live in the house and pay the full housing fee, while non-resident members pay a reduced fee.
- The house is closed altogether and every chapter member must pay a reduced housing fee.
In each of these scenarios, some members would have no access to the house but would still have to pay a housing fee. The members chose the third option, voting to close the house completely, because they understood it would be the cheapest option for the group. However, all three options required students who were unable to live in the house to pay thousands of dollars in housing fees — meaning the students were only given options that violated the governor’s moratorium.
Soon after the vote, Alpha Omicron Pi asked the UW chapter members to sign an addendum to their housing agreements that required them to pay the updated fee, totaling $6,250. The housing addendums changed the name of the fee from a “housing fee” to “the adjusted Development Fee.”
The addendum gave the students several payment installment options. It told students they had until Sept. 15, two weeks before the start of fall quarter, to sign the addendum before Alpha Omicron Pi would “default to billing your account monthly for this amount as it is the most budget-friendly option.”
In addition to the housing fee itself, Alpha Omicron Pi charged members late fees, ranging from about $3 to $37 dollars, for each month they did not pay, even though late fees are prohibited under the governor’s moratorium. One member incurred nearly $100 in late fees for fall quarter.
“We have no choice but to pay”
Many members struggled to find alternate housing and could not afford to pay both Alpha Omicron Pi’s housing fees and the rent for Seattle housing that they had to find after the chapter house was closed.
Alpha Omicron Pi’s invoices for the housing charges threatened students with suspension of their sorority membership and a referral to debt collections — implying they could face damage to their credit if they did not pay. One student’s invoice read: “Should your account continue to remain past due, you will be responsible for late fees incurred, and you may face other consequences including International Probation, Member Suspension, and your account being sent to collections.”
Several students reported that the charges and threats took a toll on them financially and emotionally during the pandemic.
As one student wrote, “We believe that [Alpha Omicron Pi] is not offering us any solutions and is instead forcing us to believe that we have no choice but to pay anything that they tell us to. We also did not receive this final decision to close the house until the beginning of September, approximately one month before the start of fall quarter. … This is completely unfair to do to a group of college women who are struggling financially in the face of a global pandemic.”
Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts that Alpha Omicron Pi’s charges and late fees violate Gov. Inslee’s emergency proclamations, which since April 2020 have included moratoriums on rent charges on housing that a tenant is unable to access as a result of COVID-19.
The lawsuit also asserts Alpha Omicron Pi violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act when it assessed fees it knew to be prohibited by the moratorium and threatened loss of membership and referral to a debt collector. The Consumer Protection Act prohibits tactics designed to unfairly pressure consumers or misrepresent consumers’ rights.
Assistant Attorneys General Ashley McDowell and Susan Edison with the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division are handling the case for Washington.
Ferguson created the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washingtonians by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Ferguson named the division for Wing Luke, who served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went on to become the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council and the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.
Attorney General’s efforts to enforce the eviction proclamation
This is the third lawsuit Ferguson has filed to enforce the eviction moratorium. The previous two lawsuits both resulted in significant monetary payments. JRK Residential, a Nevada-based property management company with units in Tacoma, Silverdale and Marysville, paid nearly $350,000 — including almost $300,000 directly to tenants in the form of refunds, payments and rent forgiveness. An Idaho low-income housing provider, Whitewater Creek, must pay $50,000 after evidence revealed they illegally threatened tenants with eviction.
As of Jan. 25, here are some of the totals of the effort the Attorney General’s Office has put into protecting Washington’s renters:
- There have been 6,716 complaints to the office
- Attorneys have contacted 5,243 tenants
- Attorneys have contacted 3,491 landlords
- 38 current attorneys from various divisions have helped staff the complaints coming into the Civil Rights Division
- 10 attorneys have come out of retirement to help with the complaints
On Oct. 20, Gov. Inslee issued a proclamation establishing safety guidelines for colleges and universities, including limiting student residences to two people per sleeping area and limiting the number of people in common areas.
Washingtonians who have questions about the governor’s eviction moratorium or who think their rights may have been violated can fill out the online form here.
Landlords who have questions about the eviction moratorium or their rights under the proclamation can contact the Attorney General’s Office here.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.firstname.lastname@example.org
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