Max Redman, his partner and their children in their empty bedroom that was one of the main rooms of their apartment with the maggot infestation on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Max Redman, his partner and their children in their empty bedroom that was one of the main rooms of their apartment with the maggot infestation on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Nightmare’ infestation leaves Everett family in debt, battling landlord

One day, Erin Hauge bent to pick up a piece of garbage. It moved. Now, the family is grappling with the stomach-churning fallout.

EVERETT — The smell came first.

It was “like death,” said Erin Hauge, whose kids were 1½ and 3 years old at the time.

Beginning in early September, the stench lingered for over a week in and around the family of four’s apartment south of Everett, so strong they couldn’t open windows or turn on the air conditioning.

Then one morning, Hauge noticed a piece of garbage on a bath mat. She bent to pick it up. The garbage moved. She lifted the mat, revealing maggots. Hundreds of them.

Throwing the mat into the shower, Hauge opened the bathroom door and saw maggots “everywhere” in the hallway. She hadn’t noticed them on the way in.

Fearing someone had died in the apartment above, Hauge’s husband called 911. When police came to investigate, everything suddenly became clear.

The source of the maggots? The upstairs neighbor had left the corpse of a pet dog rotting in their apartment.

Hauge and her husband, Max Redman, believe the neighbor got rid of the dead animal soon after the police response. But cleaning services provided by the property management company failed to get rid of the maggots.

The infestation escalated into an ordeal that left Hauge and Redman out thousands of dollars and scrambling to find a new home, the couple said. The saga raises questions about how tenants can get reimbursed for uprooting their lives and what consequences there are for landlords when issues aren’t fixed quickly.

The property management company, Mill Creek Residential, manages properties in 17 states, with offices in Florida and Texas. The Alister Parx complex at 12102 Fourth Ave. West in Everett is one of 14 properties in Washington. Hauge and Redman lived in a downstairs apartment at the complex with 443 homes.

A Mill Creek Residential public relations representative didn’t respond to requests for comment over the past month.

From the outside, the apartments look inviting. Large windows peer out of painted white walls. The complex’s website boasts of a pool and a “reimagined fitness center with state-of-the-art equipment.” Apartments are “dog and cat friendly,” the website says.

‘Just a nightmare’

In August, the family had complained to their landlords about animal waste dripping from the upstairs balcony onto their deck — with some of it hitting their infant’s face in one incident. The waste was still dripping a month later.

Hauge said she complained to maintenance several times in early September about a rotting smell.

After police conducted the welfare check, she and Redman notified Alister Parx staff about the maggots within a day, calling them and stopping by the apartment complex’s office in person, Redman said.

Alister Parx sent an exterminator the next day. Hauge said the work was inadequate, noting she asked him what he was going to spray the apartment with and he showed her “something for fleas.”

When another cleaning service came through later that day, they seemed to focus only on the shower.

“It was just a nightmare,” Hauge said. “There was dead maggots all over the floor. There was live maggots on the floor.”

The company sent other cleaners, but Hauge said they still didn’t clean nearly as thoroughly as the apartment needed.

Redman sent the first written communication about the maggots via email on Sept. 21, eight days after the discovery.

“The only issue I’m having at the moment,” he wrote, “is there are still live maggots in the apartment.”

Under state law, landlords have 24 hours after they’re notified to start addressing an issue “imminently hazardous to life” and 10 days for less urgent problems.

A fan blows air across the living room on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A fan blows air across the living room on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

As for how long landlords have to actually fix the issue, “that is a little bit more of a gray area,” said Olivia Clark, staff attorney for the Housing Justice Project at Snohomish County Legal Services.

Factors beyond anyone’s control can delay solutions, explained Sean Flynn, executive director and board president of the Rental Housing Association of Washington. In some cases, “you’re really at the whim of third-party vendors.”

“I think that there’s a feeling from folks who don’t provide housing or don’t maintain housing that, once you build a house, it’s done,” he said. “It’s not. It’s a constant maintenance battle.”

‘The landlord has a duty’

Hauge and her husband found maggots in furniture, clothes and toys.

The couple had to throw away their bed, kids’ cribs and many other belongings.

Of the financial burden, Hauge said, “there’s no way I will ever be able to compute that.”

Alister Parx manager Kelli Karakash initially told the couple that the complex didn’t have any units open, so the family paid hundreds of dollars to stay in a hotel, Hauge said. Five days later, the head of maintenance offered them a two-bedroom apartment in Alister Parx. Their previous place had three bedrooms.

The new apartment smelled of cat urine, Hauge said. The washing machine, dryer and dishwasher were broken.

Hauge estimated the couple had gone at least $6,000 in debt to cover damage and hotel stays, among other expenses, as of this month.

In a case like this, “I would look towards the landlord for reimbursement,” Clark said. “The landlord has a duty to maintain the premises in clean and sanitary conditions.”

A fly sits on a sliding glass window to an outdoor deck on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A fly sits on a sliding glass window to an outdoor deck on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

For Flynn, whose association provides resources and training mostly for small-scale landlords, a better strategy would be to look to their rental insurance. Landlords have a responsibility to maintain the building, but they’re not responsible for every incident that may damage tenants’ possessions.

“Your landlord is not your insurer,” he said.

The couple filed a claim with their own insurance, but the policy didn’t cover infestations, Hauge said.

After the initial cleaning, the manager told the couple the company would send a cleaning service to scrub “any surface you guys clean out,” Hauge said. The couple spent three days cleaning, “throwing away 90% of our possessions,” Hauge said. In the end, one worker showed up with “a rag and a bottle of spray.” She told them she was there for a “light clean.”

Another exterminator came while the family was out. A camera in the apartment showed he only stayed for a minute or two, Hauge said.

A follow-up round of extermination, nine days after the couple found the maggots, came close to solving the infestation. But even after that, Hauge said, the house was overrun with flies. They still found maggots around the house, too, in reduced numbers.

The state Residential Landlord-Tenant Act requires landlords to deal with pest infestation on their property. But in the view of Terri Anderson, interim executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, tenants have few avenues to enforce the law.

“At the tenants union, we call the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act a self-help document,” she said. “Only tenants can really enforce it” by bringing a lawsuit.

That’s not how Flynn sees it. Tenants have a clear avenue to deal with the issue, he noted, by paying for the repair themselves and deducting the cost from rent.

A tenant could also report the landlord to city code enforcement or the fire marshal.

Code enforcement usually works with the landlord to come up with a plan for repair, Anderson said. That could also result in the city shutting the rental property down, forcing the tenant out.

Tenants could also notify the landlord of their intention to pay rent into an escrow account. To get the funds released, the landlord would have to prove the repair was completed, or they could file a lawsuit.

‘Like Swiss cheese’

Inadequate pest control efforts from landlords are common, Anderson said.

But complaining to code enforcement comes with the risk of retaliation.

“With our housing crisis right now, many tenants are really reluctant to report repairs,” Anderson said.

State law makes it difficult for landlords to retaliate within 90 days of a complaint to authorities. But “all the landlord would have to do is wait 90 days and then give you the rent increase,” she said.

The state law “kind of looks a little like Swiss cheese,” Anderson said. “And those gaps are what cause tenants to remain living in substandard housing.”

In Everett, the city’s response depends on whether it’s a “life safety issue,” public works spokesperson Kathleen Baxter said in an email. If not, the landlord could get a series of warnings. Eventually, enforcement could escalate to fines of $250 per day until the landlord fixes the problem. If the issue does endanger people, the escalation happens sooner.

Everett doesn’t require tenants to have notified their landlord of the problem in writing — any kind of notification counts.

“If the landlord did not sufficiently abate the maggot infestation issue, and maggots were still present, we would definitely open a case and enforce against the landlord,” Baxter wrote.

Alister Parx is just outside city limits.

Cars drive past Alister Parx apartments on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Cars drive past Alister Parx apartments on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A Snohomish County online records database suggested no history of violations reported at the address.

Landlords have a vested interest in getting the issue solved, Flynn noted.

“Housing providers are there to run a business,” which depends on collecting rent, he said. “That doesn’t happen when your building is eaten by maggots and people move out.”

In this case, Flynn pointed out exterminators would have to deal with the infestation in the upstairs unit as well, to truly eradicate the maggots. The landlord may not have been able to get in the other unit, he suggested, due to legal protections for tenants.

What about moving the problematic tenant out? Evictions are a slow process, Flynn said.

“Every time you hear the term ‘tenant protection bill,’” he said, “well, it may protect that tenant, but it doesn’t protect other tenants and it harms the landowner’s ability to control what’s going on in their building.”

’Horror stories’

Staying in the apartment, Hauge felt “constantly on edge about” maggots.

“We tell horror stories at the tenants union” about calls from tenants, Anderson said.

On the maggot infestation at Alister Parx, she added, “I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten one that bad. That’s really horrible.”

The couple’s 1-year-old son “wakes up screaming” because “he’s been in so many different places this past few weeks,” Hauge said at the end of September. The 3-year-old started talking less.

The family moved out in early October, but stored things on the deck for a few more weeks. Alister Parx representatives asked them to sign a “Mutual Termination of Tenancy” to get credited for rent in October and November, Redman said, when their lease was set to expire.

The contract would have released both the company and the family from liability and damages. Another clause stipulated neither party would make “disparaging or derogatory remarks or untruthful statements about each other.”

Hauge and Redman refused to sign. Alister Parx has since sent them a rent and utility bill totaling nearly $4,000, most of which is for October and November. The couple has not paid.

“Tenants do oftentimes feel pressured to sign whatever the landlord puts in front of them,” said David Coombs, staff attorney at the Northwest Justice Project, a legal aid organization.

Coombs cautioned he couldn’t give legal advice, but he suggested renters get legal assistance before signing anything binding.

Similarly, Anderson said the tenants union sees cases where landlords require non-disclosure agreements to get credited for rent or other compensation.

“That’s when we send (tenants) to lawyers,” she said.

‘Every bit of savings’

Tenants can break their lease if their landlord hasn’t resolved the issue “within a reasonable time,” according to state law. After they formally break the agreement with written notice, they’re not responsible for rent after they leave.

In this case, the couple handed over the keys at the end of October, but the lease wasn’t broken in writing, Redman said. It ended in November.

The Alister Parx manager and a Mill Creek Residential representative said the company wouldn’t charge rent for October, Hauge said.

The couple spoke to lawyers. But legal advice will be another expense. They expect to spend up to $5,000.

This fall, Hauge and her family moved up to Stanwood. Their new place is smaller and more expensive, but on the whole they’re doing “OK,” Hauge said.

Their older son, who is in a pre-K program, had to change schools, a stressful transition. The family is still getting settled.

Hauge and Redman have fielded calls from a collections agency, Hauge said, for the unpaid Alister Parx bill. On top of being thousands in debt, the couple emptied their savings for moving expenses, cleaning fees and necessities. They still haven’t replaced many of their things, like lost rugs, clothes and toys.

“Every bit of savings that we had before,” about $5,000, is gone, Hauge said.

For Hauge, talking about the experience is emotional.

“It gave me extreme anxiety,” she said. “We stayed here one night with (the worst of) it happening and I could not sleep. Like, literally I would bolt up awake and go check my children’s beds to make sure that they didn’t have any worms crawling on them. And that’s just not right for a mother.”

She has a gnawing feeling she couldn’t provide a safe place for her kids to sleep — and she has to remind herself it wasn’t her fault.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly connected the Alister Parx property to a company other than Mill Creek Residential.

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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