By now, you may have heard that sweeping changes are coming to Washington’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act. There are a few headlines on the topic, yet there’s so little useful information about these reforms; all taking effect on July 28, 2019.
If you’re like me, you’re left with dozens of questions and frustrated about the quality of reporting on the topic. It’s vital for landlord to understand changes in rules, and there are a lot of big changes in 2019; especially for landlords in Tacoma where laws changed in February.
Tenants should understand these changes too. Beyond calling out crooked landlords, the new laws spell out what tenants should do if facing a housing crisis.
But if the reporting on the topic is so weak, how would one educate themselves on the matter?
The best way is to go to the source. Washington State Legislature provides great resources to discover which bills affect our Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RCW 59.18). You don’t need to hold a Juris Doctor or pass a bar exam to understand this site. Look up each bill individually and read the House or Senate Report. The reports are easy to read summaries that provide lots of detail.
Notes on what is changing
Below are my notes for personal reference. I’m not offering legal advice; go talk to your attorney for that. I’m just being open about my understanding on the topic.
Senate Bill 5333 Uniform Parentage Act
Amendments made to RCW 59.18 by this bill are not relevant to the primary concerns between landlords and tenants. Not much to say.
Senate Bill 5017 Uniform Unsworn Declarations Act
Nothing terribly interesting here either.
House Bill 1138 Termination of Tenancy–Armed Forces Exception
This bill limits which situations would allow someone in the armed forces to terminate their lease early. Those situations are a permanent change in station or deployment, plus some additional criteria.
House Bill 1462 Landlord Notice to Tenant–Demolish, Rehabilitate, or Change Use of Residential Property
Landlords that plan to demolish, change use, or substantially renovate a property will need to give 120 days notice to month to month tenants. “Change use” means a change to how the property is used that causes displacement of tenants; owners and their immediate family who wish to move in are exempt. “Substantially rehabilitate” means a project that requires a permit and displaces a tenant.
What’s the rationale here? Permits take a long time to get no matter what. Thus, builders can give tenants more time to find another place to live while waiting for the permit.
House Bill 1440 Landlords–Notice of Rent Increases
This one’s simple. 60 days or longer notice required when increasing rent by any amount. Rent cannot go up in the middle of a rental period. This does not apply to subsidized rents that adjust with factors such as income or other circumstances.
- Notices to pay or vacate go from 3 to 14 days and must use a standard notice provided by the state, available in the top 10 languages spoken.
- Payments must be applied to rent before any other charges.
- Right to possession may not be conditioned upon payment of any monetary amount other than rent. (No 10-day notice for failure to pay late fees or for not paying the repair bills for damage.) Landlords must pursue other lawful remedies, such as judgements or collections.
- “Rent” means any recurring or periodic charges for the use and occupancy of the premises, including utilities. Late fees, damages, deposits, and legal costs are expressly called out as not rent.
- “When, at the commencement of the tenancy, the landlord has provided an installment payment plan for nonrefundable fees or deposits for the security of the tenant’s obligations and the tenant defaults in payment, the landlord may treat the default in payment as rent owing.”
- Tenants found liable for unlawful detainer may reinstate tenancy by paying, within 5 days of judgement, rent due, late fees up to $75, attorneys fees, plus $50 for each prior reinstatement in the last 12 months. The writ of restitution may not be executed by the Sheriff until these 5 days elapse.
- Tenants may motion to stay the writ of restitution and the court can apply judicial discretion in a way that is fair to both sides based on:
- Whether tenant’s default on rent was intentional
- Payment history
- Ability to pay the judgement in a timely manner
- Whether nonpayment was cased by circumstances beyond tenant control and unlikely to recur
- Whether the tenant is otherwise in substantial compliance with the lease
- Hardships faced by the tenant if evicted
- Other notices in the last six months
- Tenant has the burden of proof to be granted relief, and is ineligible if served with 3 or more notices to pay or vacate in 12 months prior to the current one.
- A stay of restitution includes a payment plan that requires payment of one month’s rent in the first five days. If the stay is longer than 30 days (up to a maximum of 90 days) one month’s rent must be paid in the first 30 days and tenant must be fully caught up by the end of the payment plan.
- Depending on whether the stay is granted after the 15th, the next month’s rent may also be included as part of the payment plan. After that tenant must stay current on rent payments.
- If the tenant defaults on the payment plan, they have 3 days to correct before the Sheriff executes the writ of restitution. Three day notice stating such must be given.
- Incomplete payments on the payment plan don’t delay the process unless there is both a written agreement AND the tenant notifies the Sheriff.
- The Landlord Mitigation Program is expanded to reimburse claims from unlawful detainer where judicial discretion is sued and there is unpaid judgement.
- The summons form for an unlawful detainer is more informative to tenants.
- If landlords use alternative service of process, they must declare that the tenant could not be found and due diligence has been performed by attempting personal service three or more times over the last two days and at different times of day.
In my humble opinion, much of the hype around these laws are overblown. This isn’t the end of the world for landlords, and it won’t make a dent in the homelessness problem faced by Seattle, Tacoma, or anywhere else either.
Any landlord worth their salt already works with their tenants who fall on hard times, giving them more than three, heck often more than 14 days to get back on their feet or work with an agency to receive rental assistance. Payment plans are already commonplace. These landlords recognize that nobody can move in three days, and taking a cooperative tenant to eviction court is a big waste.
Uncooperative tenants are the ones who most often end up in court and these bills don’t change that.
I see the primary role of these bills as a minimum standard that forces crummy landlords to work with their tenants a bit longer. Unfortunately, landlords with toxic tenants have to wait a bit longer.
There’s a silver lining and that’s the expansion of the Landlord Mitigation Program, assuming it receives sufficient funding. Good luck collecting back rent or damages if it ever comes to taking a tenant to court for an unlawful detainer. The Landlord Mitigation Program gives landlords a chance to get whole again.
It is disappointing that for all the talk about the homeless crisis, these bills don’t do anything to address the big drivers of the problem. I’m not talking about affordability. I’m talking about mental health problems, drug abuse, and recidivism in those released from incarceration.
Landlords that used to give tenants until mid-month before taking action will likely eliminate grace periods, issuing 14 day notices to pay or vacate on the second of the month. Don’t interpret this as landlords being more aggressive, but rather that little will change for this group.
Late fees and damage done to units will be nigh impossible to collect, especially in the lower half of the market. It’s likely that we will see landlords attempt to tighten screening criteria, increase deposits, and increase rent to compensate in most segments of the market, except for possibly at the very bottom where tenants receive heavy subsidies.
High risk tenants will continue to have trouble finding any housing, not for lack of subsidies or affordability, but simply due to the fact that landlords are afraid to rent to them.
Tenants that experience a life issue rendering them temporarily incapable of paying rent, who also have landlords that don’t understand the art of working with their tenants, can experience a true benefit if and only if they have the wherewithal to pursue rental assistance. That said, I believe we may actually see a small uptick in number of unlawful detainer cases filed in court.