Two cities in South King County have passed just cause eviction laws in recent months, which tenant advocates hail as wins. With the cities of Burien and Federal Way under their belts, pushing for just cause laws statewide is next on the agenda.
Bills in the Washington State Legislature concerning just cause eviction were introduced during the 2019 session, but didn’t pass. John Stovall of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said the bills would likely either be re-introduced or that similar legislation will be filed during the 2020 session.
Just cause eviction laws mean landlords can’t serve tenants with 20-day no-cause eviction notices. Under current state law, landlords can evict monthly renters with one of these notices, leaving tenants with no legal recourse. Landlords are also not required to provide a reason for the evictions.
“It’s just here’s a 20-day notice, I don’t have to answer any questions, be out in 20 days or you’re going to be formally evicted and the tenant has absolutely no recourse, they cannot fight it in court, there’s no defense for a 20-day notice,” Stovall said.
The Housing Alliance is gathering anecdotes from tenants who have been evicted with these notices. One notable recent case involved the evictions at Fox Cove in Burien in late 2018, where residents of the 36 units were given notices to vacate.
Julissa Sanchez, an organizer with the Tenants Union of Washington State, said Fox Cove lit a fire under organizing efforts surrounding just cause evictions. The Burien City Council voted this fall to approve just cause eviction as well as other renter protections.
“This was not given to us,” Sanchez said. “It was the people showing up to city council every month, every other week.”
Burien’s protections outline a number of reasons a landlord can evict a tenant. Landlords must show proof of violation before they can serve an eviction. Landlords are also required to provide written information about tenants’ rights and rental criteria.
Evictions tend to harm people of color and women more severely, according to a University of Washington study released earlier this year that outlines the disparities in evictions. The study found that “African Americans were being evicted (about) five times more than whites, African American women were evicted seven times more than white women, and most evictions were happening in the most racially diverse neighborhoods.”
Sanchez said increased protections help keep people from being displaced. Anecdotally, she said the Tenants Union has heard from renters across the state who are seeing 20-day evictions used by landlords for a variety of reasons. She said some of these include retaliation for bringing up issues or requesting repairs.
“Just cause is the key to stopping displacement,” Sanchez said. “You need to protect people in their homes.”
Landlords can also use a 20-day eviction notice as a way to shuffle people out of housing. It allows landlords to raise rents, in some cases without improving the housing.
“This is one of the quickest ways a landlord can get rid of a lower income tenant and replace them with a higher income tenant,” Stovall said.
Federal Way also passed similar just cause laws on a ballot initiative. The cities join Seattle in having just cause laws. Stovall said they will be working with lawmakers in Olympia this session to push for just cause laws statewide.
While tenant advocates view these restrictions as a victory, Rob Trickler with the Washington Landlord Association said he had concerns. He said removing the ability for landlords to quickly remove tenants limits their ability to get rid of problem renters.
“Just cause takes away most of the tools to terminate a bad relationship that might be necessary to protect others because you just can’t do it any other way,” Trickler said. “I frequently see landlords that have problems with tenants being problematic with other tenants or neighbors.”
Tenant advocates say that landlords can use other ways to evict tenants, including a 14-day pay or vacate notice for late rent, or a 10-day comply or vacate notice for other violations. Trickler said these are more difficult for landlords to use.
“It’s like basically making it against the law to get out of a bad relationship, or at least seriously limiting the ways to do it,” he said.
Last session, the Legislature passed SB 5600, which increased the amount of time landlords were required to give tenants to pay or vacate from three to 14 days. Trickler said over the last two years his membership has dropped by half, which he attributed to increasing restrictions.
But other landlords like Ashok Chandwaney, who has addressed the state Legislature in support of a statewide just cause bill, said they supported the laws. Chandwaney is a landlord of a single unit, but was a renter before.
Chandwaney’s in it to turn a profit, but thinks that’s still possible with strong tenant protections.
“For me, it just seems really simple that we should be doing this,” Chandwaney said.
State tenant laws breaking down
State Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-District 48) said there will be at least two bills filed this year in Olympia surrounding tenant protections. The first would be a just cause law, which would standardize criteria for evictions across the state.
The second would be a trailer bill, designed to fix flaws in how SB 5600 has played out since it was implemented. In addition to increasing the amount of time landlords were required to give tenants to either pay or vacate from three to 14 days, SB 5600 made other changes. This included requiring landlords to notify tenants when they were late on rent three times in a year before they could be evicted. It also set up a state fund where landlords could go to seek the equivalent amount of late rent from tenants who were behind. The money would come from a state fund, and would allow landlords to be paid in a timely manner. Tenants would be allowed to stay in their homes and then pay the state back instead of their landlord.
Kuderer said some landlords and large commercial real estate management firms have been waiting for three months to report late rent payments, approaching the state to get reimbursed, then turning around and evicting their renters anyway.
“It’s been disappointing how the law has been implemented by the large property managers, and that’s why we have the need for this trailer bill,” said Kuderer, whose district includes Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland.
At a Nov. 20 meeting of the Washington state Senate Housing Stability and Affordability Committee, Carrie Graf from the Northwest Justice Project said they’ve seen landlords issuing whole apartment buildings with 14-day pay or vacate notices on the second day of the month. If done consecutively, it adds up quickly. This practice is hard on people with fixed incomes or who rely on Social Security.
“This is a change of practice from the previous law,” Graf said.
Scott Crane, also with the Northwest Justice Project, said they’re also seeing landlords issue 20-day notices alongside 14-day notices. This gives the landlord the ability to rescind notices upon payment — or not, if they choose.
To curb this, the Legislature could remove the three-notice quota from the law. Landlords could be required to go to court every time they attempt an eviction. Kuderer expects other options will be presented during discussions ahead of the Jan. 13 session.
“We are faced with a crisis here. We know that evictions are a leading cause into homelessness, we know that the cost to the individual is untold, but it’s also costly to us taxpayers when somebody becomes homeless,” Kuderer said.
Pre-filing began on Dec. 2, and Kuderer expects legislation to be filed later this month.