57-year-old Alicia Lopez moved to Vintage at Richland Senior Apartments in November 2022. Her rent at her previous apartment had increased to the point that her Section 8 housing voucher would no longer cover her rent. The Vintage apartments are in a good neighborhood. “The only thing I knew about the property at the time was it was in a good location and that it was 55 and older, so I knew it would be quieter,” said Lopez. “Other than that, I really didn't know much about this property at all.”

Vintage Housing has properties all over the U.S. (with 12 in Washington state) for residents 55 years and older. The apartments in Richland are billed as luxury accommodations. From their website:

Vintage at Richland Apartment Homes is an affordable luxury apartment community for mature adults ages 55 and over. Located in desirable Richland, Washington, our community offers spacious apartment homes with resort style amenities. At Vintage you’ll find places to relax, entertain, and energize. We offer countless amenities including an in-house Beauty Salon and our own movie theater. Our welcoming social room is designed for entertainment and monthly community events. The Vintage at Richland offers luxury, comfort, and a sense of community like nowhere else. There’s so much to find at these luxury rentals, you’ll have to see it to believe it! Now leasing, hurry in today!

Vintage is owned by  Kennedy Wilson, a global real estate investment company with $25 billion dollars of assets. They are managed by FPI Management

Vintage at Richland was built in 2005 with funding from the Washington State Housing Finance Commission that totaled nearly $12 million dollars. Money from the Housing Finance Commission is used to build affordable housing around the state. The Vintage is a 4% tax credit property, meaning investors receive a dollar-for-dollar reduction in their federal tax liability in exchange for providing equitable, affordable rental housing.

Rent at the Vintage apartments is based on income, and residents live independently. This is not a managed care facility. 

The website for Vintage at Richland shows happy, laughing, elderly adults enjoying time together. What the glossy website doesn’t show is what residents describe as years of mismanagement, lack of upkeep, and dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Many residents also talk about feeling afraid and bullied. 

Lopez said that the 1st floor ‘trash room’ at Vintage often takes resident complaints to get efficiently cleaned. Trash piles up and waste on floors goes days without being discarded, she said.

When Lopez took her tour of Vintage at Richland back in October 2022, she noticed the amenities right away. The apartments had a big meeting room, a movie theater, a hair salon, and a puzzle room. Lopez was new to the Tri-Cities and she thought this would be a great way to meet people. 

“One of the things I noticed when I walked in here… I looked down the hall and I saw the shopping carts,” said Lopez. “And I said, ‘Why are those in here?’ And the person giving the tour said, ‘Oh, we have those because you guys have to haul your groceries [to] the second and third floor, and if you need to move stuff from your storage.’”

Remember the tour guide’s answer: The shopping carts were for the residents to use. File this tidbit away; the shopping carts will be coming up again later. 

Maintenance unmaintained

Lopez said it was pretty soon after she’d moved in that she began to notice that the maintenance workers didn’t do maintenance. 

“They like to come in your house and talk to you, and they like to say they're doing maintenance, but they didn't do any maintenance. They also would close out maintenance calls and say that they did them when they didn't.” said Lopez. 

Within two weeks of moving in, one of the property managers lied to Lopez and told her that she couldn’t make a copy of her apartment key. Then Lopez’s appliances started breaking down. Her windows became covered in ice — inside — during the December snowstorm. The windows were so poorly sealed that when the wind blew, it rattled candles hanging in her windows and made them thump against the glass. Lopez said that the gaps were so big, it was like her windows were always open. She was told it would be two and half months before management could get anyone to look at her windows. 

Lopez said many of the apartments were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. And they weren’t getting fixed. 

By the time maintenance came to Lopez’s apartment a few months later, her sliding door was broken, too. Lopez ended up calling the Housing Authority and they condemned her apartment. Because of the continuous issues and Housing Authority intervening,  Lopez was allowed to move to a new apartment. 

Lopez was familiar with some of the landlord-tenant laws, and knew it was important that she begin documenting issues right away.  

Tenants must be made aware of the Washington Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, RCW 59.18, and be informed on how to use this law when problems arise. Copies of the law are available from the Tenant Union of Washington State at 206.723.0500, local branches of Columbia Legal Services, and on the websites for the Office of the Attorney General (www.atg.wa.gov) and NW Justice Project (www.nwjustice.org). The Tenant Union website (www.tenantsunion.org) answers tenant’s questions. The Attorney General’s website is a resource for both landlords and tenants. 

The Community Director, Jennifer Mendez, told residents that they were getting bids to do the necessary maintenance that many residents were needing. But it never happened. 

Lopez said Mendez would get five or six bids but then would be told there was no money for maintenance from her manager. 

A sign placed at the front walkway outside Vintage warns residents to watch their step. The sign was placed there after a resident broke their arm tripping on the rough, broken sidewalk and curbing. Lopez said that Vintage claimed the broken cement fixtures would be fixed January 15, but that after bad weather hit they didn’t hear anything more about it.

“So what I discovered through all of this was I'm not the only one,” said Lopez. “I discovered that people's toilets weren't getting replaced. They were being told to use the community lavatories instead of getting their toilets replaced. I discovered people who hadn't had working air conditioning in their homes for over a year. I discovered that the hallways, parts of them, hadn’t had air conditioning and heating… for over four years — on and on and on. And that's when I decided to start the Tenants Association.”

The Tenants Association, referred to as VARTA (Vintage at Richland Tenants Association), meets regularly to discuss issues and to interface with management. 

Jennifer Mendez really cares about the tenants, said Lopez. Some of the issue stems from the Regional Portfolio Manager for FPI Management, Celeste McGillen. FPI Management has four properties in Tri-Cities, including Vintage. 

According to her LinkedIn profile, McGillen is an ‘experienced property management professional with a demonstrated history of working in the nonprofit organization management industry.’

According to Lopez, whatever McGillen doesn’t spend on maintenance, she gets back in a big bonus at the end of the year. In a meeting with the Tenants Association (VARTA) that Lopez and Jane Campbell started, the tenants were told that the budget for upkeep is $140,000 a year. Campbell believes that the budget is going to managers as bonuses. 

Retaliation and greed

Lopez said that at an all-tenants meeting in May 2023, McGillen was told about VARTA. McGillen then apparently said, “FPI can raise rent as much as they want. Washington State Law says we can.” Tenants asked if their rent was going to be raised and McGillen said no. Two weeks after the VARTA meeting, the tenants’ rent was raised. 

The Tenants Association members believe this was rent retaliation. According to the Fair Housing Act, ‘Enforcing different terms and conditions for a tenant after they have filed a fair housing complaint’ is a violation. 

Jane Campbell is the co-chair of VARTA. She is a 72-year-old retired chemical engineer that has lived at Vintage for five years. Campbell had lived all over — in eight different states — before settling on Richland. She retired early for health reasons but liked the affordability of the Vintage apartments and their location. 

“As soon as an apartment came up, I jumped on it and moved over here. I really moved in for the amenities… the beauty parlor and the exercise room and all those things really appealed to me. And the apartment sizes are very decently sized. I met some people when I was moving in. They were friendly. They were nice. And so I thought, ‘That's a great place for me to live because I'm a very social person.’”

Campbell explains that they really hadn’t had maintenance issues when she had first moved in, but then COVID-19 happened and regular maintenance issues started piling up. Cambell said that Vintage was supposed to have had a complete refurbishment that was slated for 2020; but because of the pandemic, it was put off. Now management says it will be four more years. 

Campbell had experience with big budgets; she used to manage projects that ran $10–$20 million a year. “One of the things they keep saying is… ‘There were things we couldn't get done [during] COVID’,” Campbell said. “‘And now we can't get a lot of them done. We only have so much money a year.’ And my question is, where did all that money go? They had a maintenance budget to do all that stuff during COVID… But they apparently took the money in profit and bonuses. That's what I'm guessing.”

Dangerous living conditions

The gazebo is in bad disrepair, with holes in the roof and cracked beams.

One major thing happening right now is a systemic collapse of the HVAC ductwork. Apparently, the maintenance people have not been replacing the filters. The management company hired someone to come look at the ductwork, then declined to hire the HVAC company to fix the problems, so the Tenant Association brought him back in. Lopez said the HVAC worker told them, “Look, we've got pictures. These filters are filthy black. They haven't been changed since last July. They're supposed to be changed quarterly. So … what's happening is the ductwork is just [collapsing] in.”

Cooling the apartments has been a continuous issue. The residents are all over 55, but some of them are much older, and extreme heat is hazardous for their health. According to the Center for Disease Control: “Older adults do not adjust as well as young people to sudden changes in temperature. They are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat.”

Lopez said that when she first started documenting the issues, she discovered tenants that hadn’t had air conditioning for a year. Lopez believes the funding for maintenance is being pulled by the Vintage’s previously-mentioned Portfolio Manager in Spokane, Celeste McGillen. At numerous times, Jennifer Mendez, the Community Director, would order a new air conditioner unit for a tenant and McGillen would cancel the order, says Lopez. 

Lopez was told that just replacing a broken toilet in the middle of the night could run $500. And McGillen won’t authorize the expense. Lopez says residents' toilets were breaking and they were told to use the communal bathrooms instead of their personal toilets getting fixed. For some residents with mobility issues, this can be an issue. Nevermind the lack of dignity being afforded to residents. 

Lopez said,“There were five people who had their air conditioning completely broken. And they did not do anything about it. Nothing. And it took them about two weeks to order in enough units to replace that. Now that's something you should have on hand so that nobody has to put up with 115 degree [heat]…. Jennifer Mendez was told that she could only order one air conditioning heating unit a month.”

Campbell and Lopez decided to email McGillen continuously until she relented and made the purchases to replace the AC units. 

The Washington State Office of Human Rights also states that people with disabilities cannot be discriminated against when filing a complaint or maintenance request. ‘Delaying repair requests based on a tenant’s perceived disability or perceived lack thereof’ is a sign of disability discrimination.

Lopez has been writing and updating the situation with the Washington State Department of Human Rights. Keith Smith, a Civil Rights Investigator has been assigned the case. According to the letter sent by Smith in October, cases like The Vintage could go on for a long time, 6 to 9 months. The letter reads in part:

The Washington State Human Rights Commission is a law enforcement agency with the State of Washington. We handle many different types of discrimination cases, but this case is specifically for a claim of discrimination in housing. The usual process is that a complaint will be filed, an investigation will be conducted, the case will be reviewed by the agency director, then by the Commission itself, and lastly by the Attorney General’s office. If at any stage it is determined that there is not enough evidence to proceed, the case will be deemed “no reasonable cause”. If the case meets certain burdens at each stage, then it would eventually go to the Thurston County Superior Court. This process can take a long time, and we attempt to settle these cases whenever possible.
At this stage, I am preliminarily assigned as your investigator. The assignment may change. I am taking this opportunity to reach out to see if you have any interest in a settlement at this time. The benefits to both parties can be immense if done prior to a full investigation. All settlements include provisions in which the housing provider must take a fair housing course (or show that they recently have taken a course), post fair housing notices at their property, and allow the Human Rights Commission to review their policies. The Housing provider also does not have to admit to any violations of the Fair Housing Act. By settling early, each side minimizes the risk of an adverse finding. If either side waits until a full investigation, there is the risk that the evidence begins to break against them and they may not be able to get any relief.
If you have any interest in a settlement in this matter, please email me. If either party emails, then I will reach out to the other party to gauge their interest as well. Please know that I will not be accepting or processing any evidence, and that attempting to have me do so will only lead to me taking longer to get to your case for investigation.

Residents ask for help

Campbell explained that some of the residents are afraid to have their names on things like letters to the Attorney General. “They may have no place else to go that's affordable,” she said. “It is difficult to get some of the most vulnerable people — in terms of heat and cold and things — to file anything, and these bullies have made it worse.”

Heat exhaustion can be very dangerous for residents (especially older residents), but extreme cold is also a concern. In January, the freezing temperatures caused a pipe to burst in the electrical control room, which then caused the elevator to stop working. 

This is not the first time the elevators have been broken, says resident Angela Baltazor. She’s lived at Vintage since 2013, when her family moved her closer to them so she could help care for her grandchildren. Baltazor said the elevators started breaking down around Labor Day 2023. Sometimes the elevators would be down for three or four days at a time. 

This January, the elevators stopped working for six days. 

Residents on the second and third floors with mobility issues were stuck in their rooms. They were effectively confined without their consent. 

Sydney Parmalee, senior director for FPI Management, issued a statement to the residents:

Management has been working continuously to stay in communication with residents and to accommodate any needs that have been disrupted by the loss of elevator service, including facilitating deliveries to the upper floors and providing alternative housing when requested. Those communications will continue and all residents have been reminded to call 911 in case of any emergency. Lastly, we understand the importance of having a fully functional elevator for the convenience and safety of our residents and we want to assure you that we are actively working to resolve it.

Lopez began asking for a chairlift or a commercial lift for residents as a backup to the elevator since the breakdowns are becoming so frequent. Parmalee told residents that they were getting one but they were waiting on permits. But Lopez said that as of last week, Parmalee told her that she hadn’t even applied for permits. 

Lopez explained, “A lot of the people here are in wheelchairs with walkers — they have some kind of disability. And many of them don't have the ability to stand up for themselves… you know, as you get older, that gets a little harder, and it's scary. I am really, really upset at this company. These people pay their rent. That is one thing that Jennifer Mendez has told me: these guys pay their rent. She doesn't give out late rent notice.”

Angela Baltazor, 66, said she first moved into a one-bedroom at Vintage and then was able to move into a bigger two-bedroom. She said the apartments are tiny, and they use the cheapest materials they can in them. She also said they have rat traps everywhere. Apparently, the management has sprayed for rats and now they just intend to trap them. 

According to VARTA, bullying is a major issue with Vintage management. Residents have been frozen, overheated, trapped in their apartments, and now… management has taken away the carts that residents use to bring groceries and other items up the elevator. 

Lopez explained that the residents had purchased the carts themselves, and they have been used every day by residents. Remember, when she was first given a tour of the property, Lopez had commented on them. 

The VARTA has a six-page list of complaints that they have emailed to various agencies seeking help. It was originally dated from September 2023.  Some of the issues documented include:  

Ledger mistakes
Management has a history of keeping inaccurate ledgers. Lopez described a situation that happened in January, in which Mendez told her that building management — even knowing their ledgers were incorrect — sent out notices that residents must submit payment or face eviction. They knew the ledgers were wrong, but chose to drop them at residents’ doors at 5pm, just before leaving the office. 
This caused mass panic with residents. Additionally, residents were told to report to the office to get their ledgers corrected. They were not given appointments or opportunities to set an appointment. Residents report that they sat for hours waiting to discuss ledgers only to be told management knew they had made errors and had to correct them. Some residents waited over a week to speak to management.
Apartment Inspections
Once per year, management must conduct an apartment inspection. These inspections are to check the CO2 and smoke alarms, and make sure that the windows and water are working properly. These inspections are not being done.
Management has stated that the elevator going out is not an emergency or a problem, because they have stairs. They also said that since Vintage is an independent living environment, they do not have to offer assistance to residents. 
After learning that the press was running a story about Vintage at Richland, the management offered to send residents to hotels temporarily, and to ‘run up and down the stairs’ for them. One third-floor resident reports that they were told to be ready to check into their hotel in fifteen minutes. 

Lopez and her fellow VARTA members have tried to get help. They have reached out to legal agencies asking for help, but have received no response. Eldercare Services is not the right agency, either, as Vintage is not a managed care facility. The Northwest Justice Project would be a good resource, but they are overwhelmed with clients. In an email reply regarding the issues at Vintage, Managing Attorney Karla Carlisle wrote in part:

Please feel free to give my work email to any tenants at this apartment complex who would like to seek legal assistance. Unfortunately, I cannot guarantee that NJP would be able to assist or have the capacity to assist. The tenants may also call our CLEAR line at 1-888-201-1014 for assistance. The line is open from 9:15am to 12:15pm daily, Monday to Friday. There is also legal information and videos explaining tenant rights at WashingtonLawHelp.org.
…There are simply not enough legal aid attorneys to assist everyone in our community who needs legal help. There is also a significant lawyer shortage in Washington, especially in rural Eastern Washington.

Lopez has also sent emails to the Attorney General, but has yet to receive a response. When we contacted them for comment, Brionna Aho with the Office of the Attorney General replied in part:

The Civil Rights Division has not received direct contacts from residents of Vintage at Richland. We are, however, aware of the residents’ complaints about elevator outages at that property, and have been in contact with the property management company regarding this issue. We understand that the elevator has been repaired.

However, VARTA did have lawyers contact them after the local paper covered the elevator breakdown in early February. 

Lopez explained, “I did talk to some lawyers about a class action suit, and what they're telling me is that our Tenants Association [is] not registered with the Secretary of State yet. That's a pretty tedious process. So I'm trying to rely on the state of Washington Tenant Association to help us with that.” Lopez emphasized that she has called them several times.

And it looks like her persistence has paid off. Terri Anderson, the Interim Director for the Tenants Union, said they are coming to help. The Tenants Union has been around since 1977, formed in Seattle in response to low-income residents being forced out by developers. They are a nonprofit organization that helps tenants with education about landlord-tenant laws. There are state laws, the Residential Landlord Act, and local ordinances in different cities and counties that they help tenants understand.  

Anderson says, “We believe that tenants who are educated, and know what their rights are, have a better shot at maintaining liberty and housing stability.”

They also help tenants organize. Anderson says “We generally organize tenants for tenants associations only in HUD, project based buildings… where they have a right to organize, and in tax credit buildings, where they have rights that prevent them from retaliation.”

Vintage is a tax-credit building that is owned by a for-profit — FPI Management — an entity that is beholden to their shareholders. But they are not exempt from state laws like a market rate housing apartment. Tax-credit buildings like The Vintage have regulations but are NOT rent controlled. HUD (Housing and Urban Development) sets the rent for HUD managed properties based on the area's median income (AMI). HUD properties will set the rent based on the AMI and not have adjustments (rent increases) throughout the year. But not at places like Vintage. “They do nickel and dime their tenants,” said Anderson. “And every time there's an adjustment in the AMI, they raise the rent.” 

Anderson says at The Vintage Spokane, where she has been working with the tenants for a while now, the average person is paying 70% of their income to rent. And with the lack of affordable, low income housing, people have no choice but to pay.

That’s where the Tenants Union can help. They will help tenants organize an association and teach tenant escalating techniques to get their needs met… without being afraid. Anderson explains that they sit down and go through something they call ‘inoculation’ with the tenants. They really dive into the fears the tenants have and their concerns with what the management is going to do in retaliation. Then, when the management mistreats tenants, they feel empowered to fight back. 

Escalating techniques work, says Anderson. First they give their list of concerns to management, then they start a letter writing campaign, then they go to the media. Tenants also have the ability to hit the management where it hurts: with their tax credits. Anderson explains, “The Washington State Tax Commission will review who gets tax credits in our state. [If there are] a lot of complaints about management, treating their tenants badly, they could lose their tax credit. All those hedge fund people… their entire purpose of existence is the tax credit.” Anderson said this technique has worked before in Spokane. And it could work here. 

Anderson said tenants don’t need to be afraid; they have options. “There’s this thing called the Constitution of the United States. And then there is the Bill of Rights. One of the Bill of Rights is freedom of speech and freedom to assemble. Just because you're a renter in a tax credit building, you don't lose those rights.”

Residents are not tiring and they are not giving up. 

But Jane Campbell said they all believe that the management is purposely ignoring them. And more than that, Campbell said, “We believe it's been vindictive.” 

Lopez agreed, saying, “I absolutely do, too.”

“And other people that I've described this to and that have followed what we're doing all say this is retribution,” Campbell continued. 

Lopez said, “It’s retaliation… it is retaliation.”

A lifelong resident of Eastern Washington, Dori enjoys the outdoors, her family, and making good trouble. She has worked for many years in broadcasting and reporting and believes in the value of the 4th estate. She is a true community advocate that loves Washington.

Photos by Alicia Lopez