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Landlord: Tenant violated his lease by dying

That's what a West Seattle woman says she was told after her brother died and she went to get the security deposit.

Debra Tolbert at the White Center house where her brother, Dennis Hanel, had been living. Credit: Matt Mills McKnight

Debra Tolbert’s brother had been battling stage four kidney failure when he died last month of a heart attack.

But a grieving Tolbert was hardly prepared for what she heard from property managers of Dennis Hanel’s White Center rental house when she tried to collect his security deposit and last month’s rent.

Her brother “violated the terms his lease” when he died, a representative of the rental and management company told her. “She said to me, ‘He’s not getting anything back,’ ” Tolbert said.

A promised explanation for why they are keeping the $1,400, which she’d hoped to use to pay for his cremation, still hasn’t materialized – two weeks after that phone call and a month after her brother’s death.

She says they’ve also not responded to her barrage of phone calls and text messages.

Anthony Narancic, owner of Real Estate Services, the property rental and management company for the property, did not return a reporter’s phone calls and text messages to him and an assistant requesting comment.

Washington CAN, a community organization that advocates for low- and middle-income people, has been trying to help Tolbert get the money back.

“For a landlord to require someone to give notice that they are going to die in order to get a deposit back is outrageous and unethical, not to mention inhumane,” said Xochitl Maykovich, an organizer at Washington CAN. “I don’t understand how someone like that can sleep at night.”

When a tenant dies, Washington requires a landlord to either refund unearned rent and security deposits within 21 days after that person’s unit has been cleared or provide an explanation to the family.

Melany Brown, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, said she hasn’t encountered cases involving the deaths of tenants and said some leases do address such circumstances. Absent that, she said, “the best practice is for any landlord to work with tenants.”

Dennis Hanel in the fall of 2016. Courtesy of Debra Tolbert
Dennis Hanel in the fall of 2016. Courtesy of Debra Tolbert

But Violet Lavatai, membership coordinator with the Tenants Union of Washington, which advocates on behalf of renters, said landlords deal with death all the time and she knows of no instance where it’s covered in a lease.

She said if the landlord continues to withhold the deposit and refuses to provide an explanation, Tolbert is entitled to sue.

“Dying is not a violation of a lease,” Lavatai said. “A landlord who does something like that has no moral compass.”

Tolbert said Hanel, 55, was first diagnosed with kidney failure four years ago. He had been homeless and living on the streets when the family learned of a room for rent in a five-room house in White Center. At $700 a month, Tolbert said, it was manageable.

Her brother signed a six-month lease in November, and the family paid $2,100 in first and last months’ rent and a security deposit. Tolbert had just paid his January rent when he died Jan 8.

She had been unable to reach him the day before and wound up leaving a church service early when “something tugged at my heart.”

She discovered Hanel dead in his apartment, of an apparent heart attack.

She said she removed all his belongings, cleaned out his place and within 24 hours had returned his key to the property managers.

She was hoping to get his deposit and last month’s rent back to pay to have him cremated. She used her credit card instead.

Maykovich of Washington CAN said given the city’s growing housing crisis, the landlord’s action is not surprising. “In Seattle, people are so desperate for housing, landlords are taking advantage left and right,” she said.

“Most of the time, people don’t even think of a deposit as a deposit, but as an extra payment.”

Tolbert said she needs the money to pay off the credit card. “I’m used to saying let go and let God. I believe it will come out in the wash. Something will happen.”

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