Elderly Bellingham tenants rally to fly flags on Fourth of July

Bellingham resident Gayla Donaldson planned to fly a U.S. flag this Fourth of July to honor her cousin who died last year.

Donaldson, 75, lives at Deer Run Terrace, a senior apartment site owned by Bellingham Housing Authority next to Sunset Square Shopping Center.

Her cousin, George Wahlen, won a Medal of Honor 65 years ago for tending to wounded comrades during fighting on Iwo Jima, despite being repeatedly wounded himself. At one point, according to news reports, Wahlen bandaged himself after shrapnel broke one of his legs, then kept on treating other soldiers.

"He was a kind, gentle person," Donaldson said. "We to have honor our war heroes."

Then another tenant showed Donaldson a flier, dated June 18, that had been distributed to residents by Indigo Real Estate Services, the Mercer Island firm that manages Deer Run.

With summer approaching, the flier reminded tenants what was allowed, and what was prohibited, on patios and balconies. Among the prohibited items were "flags and banners."

The idea that flags couldn't be flown for Independence Day riled Donaldson and several other tenants.

"Nobody's going to tell me I can't fly the U.S. flag," said Susan Olsen, who quickly bought a box of 15 flags to sell to her fellow tenants.

Donaldson - a blue-eyed, white-haired sparkplug who used to be a social worker in California - talked to Deer Creek's onsite manager about her concern, but didn't wait for a response before duct-taping her flag to a post on her second-floor balcony.

Donaldson said the manager told her the next day that it would be OK, after all, to fly flags.

The manager could not be reached for comment. Her supervisor, Todd Bacon, initially declined comment, but later said in an e-mail to The Herald that the flier was a standard notice sent to residents this time of year and wasn't intended to limit patriotic displays on holidays.

If nothing else, the flap fanned patriotic feelings at Deer Creek. By Thursday afternoon, at least nine flags were flying from balconies and patios, and tenants promised more would appear.

Elsie Hansen is flying a flag. Asked why, she showed a print of a photo of her brother, Lonnie Musgrove, who served in the Army during World War II and spent six months in a German POW camp. On the print she wrote, "Not to be forgotten."

Doug Honig, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said he wasn't aware of litigation that dealt specifically with the issue, but expressed support for the idea that tenants should be able to express their political views with signs or flags in their windows and on their balconies. Whether tenants can lose that right through limits in a lease isn't clear, he said.

I talked to executives at several apartment management companies in Bellingham about flags. They shared a concern about tenants nailing or screwing flag hardware into railings or siding. That's understandable.

Another concern was having apartment complexes become cluttered with banners, flags, curtains, laundry and whatever else people might want to hang outdoors.

However the executives said they let tenants fly the U.S. flag on holidays, or look the other way if it happens.

Phil Maxwell, owner and manager of Apex Property Management, said his tenants, mostly college students, don't fly many U.S. flags, but several have flown flags of countries competing in the World Cup. He doesn't mind.

Still, if you're a renter who loves soccer or loves America, or both, it's probably smart to check with the owner or manager before hoisting your colors.