AG Ferguson files lawsuit against national sorority for charging and threatening UW students in violation of eviction moratorium
Sorority charged thousands in rent and late fees even though students could not safely live in sorority housing
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today filed a lawsuit against the collegiate sorority Alpha Omicron Pi for unlawfully charging University of Washington (UW) students more than $6,000 in rent even though the students could not access or live in sorority housing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alpha Omicron Pi, a national, Tennessee-based sorority, also illegally charged late fees and threatened students with suspensions of their sorority memberships and damage to their credit if they did not pay.
Alpha Omicron Pi owns the “Greek Row” house used as housing for the UW chapter members. The UW chapter house can house approximately 80 members. It includes a “porch room,” a large, open room with 26 bunkbeds, and smaller suites with space for four or eight women.
Ferguson’s lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asserts that the sorority’s demands for housing payments, threats and late fees violated Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency eviction moratorium. The governor’s emergency proclamation specifically prohibits landlords from charging rent to tenants when the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in those tenants losing access to the property. The governor’s moratorium also prohibits landlords from threatening to refer individuals who are unable to pay rent to collection agencies, and blocks landlords from charging late fees for past due rent.
Nine UW students complained to the Attorney General’s Office’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium enforcement team, via the office’s online complaint form. One student wrote in her complaint: “We are all college students, most of us living away from home for the first time. Alpha Omicron Pi has taken advantage of that and made us believe that our only option is to pay whatever they tell us or else risk being sued or having our credit scores ruined.”
“Tenants have protections for a reason,” Ferguson said. “Charging Washingtonians thousands of dollars for housing they cannot access due to a global pandemic is illegal — and wrong.”
Unlawful housing charges
In February 2020 — before the global pandemic struck — the sorority members signed housing agreements with the UW chapter covering the 2020 to 2021 academic year. Members living in the house were charged a $12,177 housing fee, which included meals and housing. Members living in their own housing were charged $1,334 for food and “non-residential” use of the chapter house.
As the pandemic first hit, Alpha Omicron Pi allowed only ten members to live in the house for spring quarter, from mid-March to June 2020. The members who did not live in the house during that time received a discount of one month’s worth of housing fees.
In September 2020, as the students were returning to school after summer break, the UW chapter members voted to close down the house completely for the upcoming school year. In advance of the vote, Alpha Omicron Pi gave the chapter members three options — and all of them violated the emergency proclamation:
1. 56 members live in the house and pay the full housing fee, while the remaining non-resident members pay a reduced fee.
2. 20 to 30 members can choose to live in the house and pay the full housing fee, while non-resident members pay a reduced fee.
3. The house is closed altogether and every chapter member must pay a reduced housing fee.
In each of these scenarios, some members would have no access to the house but would still have to pay a housing fee. The members chose the third option, voting to close the house completely, because they understood it would be the cheapest option for the group. However, all three options required students who were unable to live in the house to pay thousands of dollars in housing fees — meaning the students were only given options that violated the governor’s moratorium.
Soon after the vote, Alpha Omicron Pi asked the UW chapter members to sign an addendum to their housing agreements that required them to pay the updated fee, totaling $6,250. The housing addendums changed the name of the fee from a “housing fee” to “the adjusted Development Fee.”
The addendum gave the students several payment installment options. It told students they had until Sept. 15, two weeks before the start of fall quarter, to sign the addendum before Alpha Omicron Pi would “default to billing your account monthly for this amount as it is the most budget-friendly option.”
In addition to the housing fee itself, Alpha Omicron Pi charged members late fees, ranging from about $3 to $37 dollars, for each month they did not pay, even though late fees are prohibited under the governor’s moratorium. One member incurred nearly $100 in late fees for fall quarter.
“We have no choice but to pay”
Many members struggled to find alternate housing and could not afford to pay both Alpha Omicron Pi’s housing fees and the rent for Seattle housing that they had to find after the chapter house was closed.
Alpha Omicron Pi’s invoices for the housing charges threatened students with suspension of their sorority membership and a referral to debt collections — implying they could face damage to their credit if they did not pay. One student’s invoice read: “Should your account continue to remain past due, you will be responsible for late fees incurred, and you may face other consequences including International Probation, Member Suspension, and your account being sent to collections.”
Several students reported that the charges and threats took a toll on them financially and emotionally during the pandemic.
As one student wrote, “We believe that [Alpha Omicron Pi] is not offering us any solutions and is instead forcing us to believe that we have no choice but to pay anything that they tell us to. We also did not receive this final decision to close the house until the beginning of September, approximately one month before the start of fall quarter. … This is completely unfair to do to a group of college women who are struggling financially in the face of a global pandemic.”