Company owns and manages low income housing units in eastern Washington and threatened residents with eviction for unpaid rent
SPOKANE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit today against an Idaho property management company, Whitewater Creek, for violating Gov. Jay Inslee’s Emergency Evictions Proclamation. Inslee’s proclamation establishes a temporary moratorium on evictions for the inability to pay rent as Washingtonians deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The proclamation specifically prohibits landlords from threatening to evict tenants for unpaid rents during the proclamation’s effective period and specifies they have to enter into repayment plans with tenants.
The lawsuit, filed in Spokane County Superior Court, asserts Whitewater Creek violated the Evictions Proclamation and Consumer Protection Act by threatening to evict several residents of low-income housing complexes in Spokane County.
Emails obtained by the Attorney General’s Office show that at the express direction of Maryann Prescott, a majority owner of Whitewater Creek, Whitewater Creek personnel verbally threatened at least four residents at properties it was responsible for. Prescott wanted tenants to know they would be evicted for unpaid rent and/or fees as soon as courts reopened for eviction proceedings. These residents were also informed that they would be responsible for unspecified legal fees associated with their evictions. These threats came one month after Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium was well-known throughout the state. Whitewater Creek personnel did not disclose the eviction moratorium protected the residents from such action.
An April 20 email Prescott sent to a Whitewater Creek site manager asked to “confirm you explained that (the resident) will be evicted for past due rent when courts reopen.” Ms. Prescott received the response, “yes she did tell them all about the eviction”. On April 21, Prescott sent another email noting a site manager needed “to hold these (residents) accountable” to pay past due rent.
“Washingtonians are struggling, yet Whitewater Creek illegally threatened tenants with evictions in the middle of a pandemic,” Ferguson said. “They violated the clear text of the Governor’s emergency proclamation. Their actions were cruel, unacceptable and illegal. They will be held accountable.”
Whitewater Creek, Inc. is a Hayden, Idaho-based real estate company that, through a number of related entities, manages and owns 1,000 low-income housing units across 12 housing complexes in eastern Washington. Many of their properties were developed with millions of dollars in taxpayer funding in the form of tax-credit equity and tax-exempt notes authorized by the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.
The Attorney General’s Office received complaints from multiple tenants at Whitewater Creek properties alleging various violations of the governor’s proclamations including verbal threats of eviction for non-payment of rent or other fees.
In April, one tenant suspected that the threats were not being memorialized in writing to avoid evidence of violating the eviction proclamations. Another resident asked to make a partial payment or go on a repayment plan based on the federal stimulus payment she expected. Whitewater Creek informed the resident, who is a single mother of young children, she would be evicted the day courts reopened for eviction proceedings if she did not pay the full balance owed. When she attempted to contact Whitewater Creek’s corporate office to dispute the eviction threat and find out how much the legal fees would be, she was informed that she would be “charged with harassment” if she did not stop calling. This resident expressed fear of retaliation for attempting to contest the eviction threat and also worried she would lose custody of her children if evicted.
Around the same time in April, Whitewater Creek personnel threatened another resident with eviction for being one month behind on the balance she owed. After the resident, who is an unemployed single mother with two young children, informed Whitewater Creek staff that she had just been approved for unemployment and hoped to soon be caught up on payments by the end of the month, a Whitewater Creek property manager instructed her to “turn in any monies (she has) to help avoid eviction.”
The Attorney General’s Office sent a letter in May requesting, among other actions, that Whitewater Creek immediately notify all residents the Emergency Proclamations prohibit threats of eviction and that Whitewater Creek would comply with the Proclamations. Instead of issuing such notices and providing copies to the Attorney General’s Office, as requested, Whitewater Creek consistently and falsely denied that it threatened to evict anyone, contrary to internal email communications confirming that it threatened residents with eviction at Prescott’s direction.
Attorney General’s efforts to enforce the eviction proclamation
This is the second lawsuit Ferguson filed to enforce the eviction moratorium. The previous lawsuit against JRK Residential, a Nevada-based property management company with units in Tacoma, Silverdale and Marysville, resulted in May of a payment of nearly $350,000 — including almost $300,000 directly to tenants in the form of refunds, payments and rent forgiveness.
As of mid-August, here are some of the totals of the effort the Attorney General’s Office has put into protecting Washington’s renters:
- There have been 3,711 complaints to the office
- Attorneys have contacted 2,829 tenants
- Attorneys have contacted 1,958 landlords
- 38 current attorneys from various divisions have helped staff the complaints coming into the Civil Rights Division
- Eight attorneys have come out of retirement to help the Division with complaints
Washingtonians concerned about violations of the governor’s eviction moratorium can file a complaint online here.
Landlords who have questions about the eviction moratorium or their rights under the proclamation can contact the Attorney General’s Office here.
Ferguson created the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washington tenants 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.
Assistant Attorneys General Cindy Chang and Patricio Marquez will be the lead attorneys on the Whitewater Creek case.
Governor Inslee’s Emergency Eviction Proclamation
On March 18, Governor Inslee issued Emergency Proclamation 20-19, titled “Evictions,” to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace by prohibiting certain residential evictions and related actions statewide. Actions prohibited under Emergency Proclamation 20-19 include serving fourteen-day notices to pay or vacate.
Protections for Homeowners
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) granted relief for homeowners who have federally owned or insured mortgages. The mortgages eligible for relief under the CARES Act included those owned or insured by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Housing Administration and United States Department of Agriculture. The majority of American homeowners possess a federally owned or backed mortgage. Those who do not will need to contact their servicer to learn what options are available.
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.
Dan Jackson, Acting Communications Director, (360) 753-2716; email@example.com
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