Property management company disputes public shaming campaign

SEATTLE -- Maybe you've seen them on Capitol Hill or in North Seattle, bright yellow flyers plastered around town telling people to steer clear of apartment buildings managed by a local company that is refusing to respond to tenant's complaints about bed bugs, mold, leaks and plumbing problems.

The public shaming campaign, organized by the Seattle Solidarity Network, is designed with one goal in mind: to put pressure on the property manager so they'll - as the group puts it - do the right thing. But, Bart Flora, co-president of Cornell & Associates, the company in question, said the claims being made against his business are baseless and coming from people who don't even live in the building.

"The people protesting us are not tenants." Flora said. "We do inspections once a year; it's our policy. We didn't find any mold in those units."

The Seattle Solidarity Network is an all-volunteer community organizing group that works with tenants and employees who feel they're being unfairly treated, ignored, not getting paid and/or living in unsafe, unhealthy conditions. The group was contacted in August by several tenants of the Sterling Manor Apartments in North Seattle over unmet concerns.

"Nine months they had been making regular complaints to the immediate manager," Seattle Solidarity Network's Michael Reagan said. "Three tenants had been asking for mold to be cleaned up, complaining about the conditions and have been more or less ignored."

On Thursday, the group planned to picket outside Cornell & Associates Eastlake offices. Reagan said along with the flyers, the picket is another tool used by the Seattle Solidarity Network to effect change, and it's worked well for them in the past.

"Eighty percent of these fights we take on we actually win," he said.

The community group took their case online and posted photos reportedly taken inside the apartment building showing mold and bedbugs. Flora said these kinds of things can happen in apartment buildings, but their inspections of Sterling Manor didn't turn up anything.

While Flora wouldn't share Cornell & Associates' inspection documents, the Seattle Housing Authority's independent inspections of several units participating in housing-assistance programs only showed minor repairs, such as replacing a refrigerator light bulb and fixing a broken electrical outlet.

While the battle between Cornell & Associates and some of its tenants can seem like a case of he said/she said the tactics used by the Seattle Solidarity Network are not new.

Linda Ishem is an assistant professor of Urban Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. Lately, she and her students have been talking about these kinds of grassroots social movements and just how effective they can be on bringing about change.

She said tactics designed to put public pressure on businesses, property managers, even government entities have a long history, especially among groups that don't always have other resources available; so, those groups take to the streets - even if it may seem risky.

"We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the bus boycotts, they were very effective but people did die," she said.

While public pressure campaigns have proven powerful in the past, Ishem isn't so certain about their future.

"These kinds of campaigns have less effectiveness today than when we had a more common and shared sense of what is right and wrong and how people should be treated," she said.

As for the situation between Cornell & Associates and its tenants, Flora said Seattle Solidarity Network members can picket outside his office all they want, but he's not going to be "bullied" into doing anything differently.

"Our company follows the rules, and we have been in business for 40 years," he said.