Residential-Landlord Tenant Act.
The Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA) regulates the relationship between landlords and tenants, and includes provisions regarding the duties of tenants and landlords, remedies for violations of those duties, and prohibited actions.
In the last biennium, the Legislature enacted several reforms covering a wide variety of issues governing the landlord-tenant relationship, including requiring landlords to accept any pledge of emergency rental assistance funds provided to the tenant from a governmental or nonprofit entity before the notice to pay or vacate for nonpayment of rent expires, and to suspend any court action for seven court days after they provide necessary payment information to the nonprofit or governmental entity to allow for payment of the assistance funds.
Enforcement Remedies and Unlawful Detainer.
Landlord remedies for a tenant's failure to comply with his or her duties includes eviction of a tenant in unlawful detainer status. The definition of "unlawful detainer" applicable under the RLTA, as well as with respect to other tenancies not governed by the RLTA, is found in a chapter separate from the RLTA, chapter 59.12 RCW. A tenant is in unlawful detainer status when he or she:
Stay of the Writ of Restitution in Unlawful Detainer Proceeding.
A tenant against whom a judgment has been entered for the restitution of the premises and forfeiture of the tenancy due to nonpayment of rent may obtain a stay of the writ of restitution upon good cause and on such terms that the court deems fair and just for both parties.
In making a determination with respect to a stay, the court is to consider several factors including the tenant's willful or intentional default, whether nonpayment was caused by exigent circumstances beyond the tenant's control, the tenant's conduct, and hardship on the tenant if evicted. A tenant who has been served with three or more notices to pay or vacate within 12 months prior to the notice to pay or vacate upon which the unlawful detainer proceeding is based is prohibited from seeking a stay.
On March 18, 2020, Governor Inslee issued Proclamation 20-19 to prohibit a number of activities related to evictions by all residential landlords operating residential rental property in the state. Since then, the Governor has issued multiple extensions of the eviction moratorium with the current variation, Proclamation 20-19.6, set to expire on June 30, 2021.
The eviction moratorium prohibits residential landlords, manufactured housing community landlords, property managers, and property owners from:
The current moratorium also prohibits landlords from:
A failure to provide a reasonable repayment plan under the moratorium is a defense to any lawsuit or other attempts to collect. A landlord may engage in customary and routine communications with residents of a dwelling or parcel of land occupied as a dwelling.
Eviction Resolution Pilot Program.
On September 9, 2020, the state Supreme Court issued an order authorizing superior courts to implement an Eviction Resolution Program (ERP). Six counties chose to participate in the pilot ERP. The ERP requires landlords to undertake efforts to engage tenants in pre-filing resolution efforts including direct negotiation, facilitated conciliation services, and, upon agreement of both parties, formal mediation provided by the participating Dispute Resolution Centers (DRCs).
The ERP is a two-step process. Along with a rent due notice/letter, a landlord will send notice number 1, a request for a formal first meeting involving the two parties and DRC staff. Notice number 1 also includes contact information of the participating DRC, rental assistance resources, and the county tenant attorneys. Upon receipt of the rent due notice and notice number 1, the tenant has 14 days to voluntarily engage in the process. If the tenant does not respond to the initial contact, the landlord sends the tenant notice number 2, which is another request to engage in the ERP program. The tenant has 10 days to respond to this second contact and the landlord sends a copy of notice number 2 to the participating DRC.
Once a landlord and tenant voluntarily enter into the ERP process, specialists will work with both parties and external partners to resolve the issue of nonpayment and future payments. If resolution cannot be achieved, formal mediation will be offered to the landlords/tenants at no cost.
The ERP process can be initiated by either the landlord or the tenant without service of a 14-day notice. If the tenant initiates or responds to a notice, the landlord is obligated to participate in the process. Once the Governor's eviction moratorium—Proclamation 20-19.5—and any of its amendments or extensions expire, the ERP will require landlords to engage in pre-litigation conciliation efforts prior to filing an unlawful detainer action.
Right to Counsel.
The United States and Washington constitutions, as well as state statutes and court rules, provide for the right to legal counsel for indigent persons in certain court proceedings, including criminal, juvenile, involuntary commitment, and dependency cases.
"Indigent" is defined as a person, at any stage of the court proceedings, who:
There is no federal or state guaranteed right to counsel for indigent tenants in unlawful detainer cases. A few cities in the country have implemented some form of right to counsel for tenants in eviction proceedings.
Office of Civil Legal Aid.
The Legislature established the Office of Civil Legal Aid (OCLA) in 2005 as an independent agency in the judicial branch. The OCLA is responsible for the administration and oversight of state funds that are appropriated by the Legislature to provide civil legal aid services. The OCLA does not provide legal aid services directly, but contracts with attorneys to provide civil legal aid services to eligible low-income clients throughout the state. The Northwest Justice Project is the primary statewide provider of civil legal aid services. The OCLA is responsible for reporting to the legal aid oversight committee on the use of state funds for legal aid.
Dispute Resolution Centers.
Dispute Resolution Centers were first authorized in statute as part of the 1984 Court Improvement Act in order to provide forums in which persons may voluntarily participate in the resolution of disputes in an informal and less adversarial atmosphere than a judicial setting. A DRC may be created and operated by a city or county, or by a nonprofit corporation. Participation by all parties is voluntary, and services offered by a DRC must be provided without charge to the participants or for a fee that is based upon the participant's ability to pay. Dispute Resolution Centers handle numerous types of cases, including those that involve landlords and tenants.
State Rental Assistance Programs.
The Department of Commerce (Commerce) administers a number of rental assistance programs that serve a variety of populations depending on certain eligibility standards. Funds received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act have allowed Commerce to set up an eviction rent assistance program to help qualifying households impacted by COVID-19. Funds are distributed to county grantees, such as county governments and nonprofit entities, which provide rent assistance to qualifying households.
Landlord Mitigation Program.
The Landlord Mitigation Program (LMP) allows landlords to seek reimbursement for claims related to landlord mitigation for renting private market rental units to low-income tenants using a housing subsidy program by submitting such claims to Commerce. The program offers up to $1,000 in reimbursement to landlords for potentially required move-in upgrades, up to 14 days of lost rental income, and up to $5,000 in any unpaid rent and utilities and qualifying damages caused by a tenant during the tenancy. Any landlord that has screened, approved, and offered rental housing to any applicant that will be using any form of housing subsidy program is eligible to submit a claim, except for properties operated by housing authorities. The LMP also includes landlord claims for reimbursement in unlawful detainer cases where judicial discretion is exercised and there is an unpaid judgment for rent, late fees, attorneys' fees, and costs, including any unpaid portion of the judgment after the tenant defaults on a court ordered-payment plan.
Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act.
The Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act (MHLTA) governs the legal rights, remedies, and obligations arising from any rental agreement between a landlord and a tenant regarding a mobile home lot within a mobile home park where the tenant has no ownership interest in the property, or in the association that owns the property.
For a tenant's nonpayment of rent that accrued between March 1, 2020, and six months following the expiration of the eviction moratorium, a landlord may not:
A landlord or prospective landlord may not:
A landlord or prospective landlord in violation of these prohibitions and requirements is liable for up to 2.5 times the monthly rent, court costs, and attorneys' fees.
"Eviction moratorium" means the Governor's Proclamation 20-19.6 proclaiming a moratorium on certain evictions throughout the state. The Governor's eviction moratorium must end on June 30, 2021.
"Public health emergency" means the Governor's Proclamation 20-05 and any subsequent orders extending or amending the proclamation due to COVID-19.
"Tenant" is defined to include persons residing in transient lodging, such as hotels/motels or camping areas as primary dwellings, for 30 days or more prior to March 1, 2020. "Tenant" does not include any individual residing in a hotel, motel, or camping area as their primary dwelling for more than 30 days after March 1, 2020, if the hotel, motel, or camping area has provided the individual with a seven-day eviction notice, which must provide certain legal aid resource information, and does not include occupants of homeless mitigation sites or persons entering onto land without the permission of the owner or lessor. Any local government provision of solid waste or hygiene services to unsanctioned encampments does not constitute permission to occupy land.
Landlord Mitigation Program.
A landlord may file a reimbursement claim under the LMP for unpaid rent that accrued between March 1, 2020, and six months following the expiration of the eviction moratorium, when:
A landlord is ineligible for reimbursement under the LMP for unpaid rent that accrued between March 1, 2020, and six months following the expiration of the eviction moratorium when the tenant has been evicted. Claim reimbursement may not exceed $15,000. For such claims, the landlord may not take legal action or pursue a collection action against the tenant to seek any remaining unpaid rent or recover for damages once reimbursed under the LMP.
Funds in the LMP account must be prioritized by Commerce for allowable costs, and may only be used for other allowable costs when funding exceeds the amount needed to pay those claims.
If a tenant has unpaid rent that accrued between March 1, 2020, and six months following the expiration of the eviction moratorium or the end of the public health emergency, whichever is greater, the landlord must offer the tenant a reasonable schedule for repayment of the unpaid rent, with monthly payments no more than one-third of the monthly rent. If the tenant fails to accept the terms of a reasonable repayment plan within 14 days of the offer, the landlord may proceed with an unlawful detainer action subject to any requirements under the ERP. If the tenant defaults on any rent owed under a repayment plan, the landlord may apply for reimbursement from the LMP up to $15,000 or proceed with an unlawful detainer action, subject to any requirements under the ERP.
During any unlawful detainer proceeding, the court must consider the tenant's circumstances, including any decreased income or increased expenses due to COVID-19, and the repayment plan terms offered during any unlawful detainer proceeding. It is a defense to an unlawful detainer action if the landlord did not offer a repayment plan.
Any repayment plan entered into by the landlord and tenant must:
Eviction Resolution Pilot Program.
Subject to funds appropriated for this purpose, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) must contract with DRCs within or serving each county to establish a two-year, statewide court-based ERP operated in accordance with Washington Supreme Court Order No. 25700-B-639 and any standing judicial order of the individual superior court. The ERP must be used to facilitate the resolution of nonpayment of rent cases between a landlord and tenant before the landlord files an unlawful detainer action. Before filing an unlawful detainer action for nonpayment of rent, the landlord must provide a 14-day pay or vacate notice and an additional notice to the tenant informing them of the ERP. The landlord must retain proof of service or mailing of the additional notice.
The additional notice to the tenant must provide at least the following information regarding the ERP:
At the time of service or mailing of the pay or vacate notice and additional notice to the tenant, a landlord must also send copies of these notices to the local DRC serving the area where the property is located.
A landlord must secure a certification of participation by the appropriate DRC before an unlawful detainer action for nonpayment of rent may be heard by the court.
Any superior court, in collaboration with the DRC located within or serving the same county, participating in the ERP must report annually to the AOC beginning January 1, 2022, until January 1, 2023, on the following:
By July 1, 2022, until July 1, 2023, the AOC must provide a report to the Legislature summarizing the ERP report data shared by the superior courts and DRCs.
Right to Counsel.
Subject to appropriations, the court must appoint an attorney for an indigent tenant in an unlawful detainer proceeding. The OCLA must prioritize providing legal representation to indigent tenants in counties in which the most evictions occur and to indigent tenants who are disproportionately at risk of eviction. "Indigent" means any person who:
The OCLA is responsible for implementation of the indigent tenant's right to counsel. The OCLA must contract with attorneys and other agencies to implement tenants' right to counsel within appropriated amounts. Within 90 days of the effective date of the act, the OCLA must also submit a plan to the Legislature and AOC outlining full implementation of the Right to Counsel Program within 12 months of the effective date of the act.
The uniform 14-day pay or vacate notice for nonpayment of rent is updated to inform tenants of the appointment of counsel for qualifying low-income renters, contact information for tenants believing they may qualify, general information regarding DRC services, as well as state and local rental assistance programs as listed on the Office of the Attorney General's website. The notice is also updated to inform tenants that upon expiration of the ERP:
The eviction summons is also updated to inform tenants of the appointment of counsel for low-income tenants, to provide contact information for tenants who believe they may qualify, and general information regarding DRC services.
State Rental Assistance Programs.
Commerce must authorize landlords an opportunity to apply to certain state rental assistance programs (the Consolidated Homeless Grant Program, Emergency Solutions Grant Program, and any rental assistance program funded through federal COVID-19 relief funds) if feasible, and establish necessary application and eligibility requirements and any conditions on the receipt of funds.
Until March 31, 2022, Commerce must provide rental assistance directly to landlords on behalf of indigent tenants who are unable to:
Landlord Grant Assistance Program.
Seven million five hundred thousand dollars is appropriated from the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund to Commerce for the Landlord Grant Assistance Program (Grant Program) to provide grants to eligible landlords for unpaid rent that accrued during the eviction moratorium. To be eligible for a grant under the Grant Program, a landlord must:
Eligible landlords may receive a grant of up to 80 percent of the total amount of rent in arrears. Landlords who receive grants from the Grant Program are prohibited from:
By September 30, 2023, Commerce must provide a report to the Legislature with the number of:
Payment of Rent into Court Registry.
The additional, optional notice for landlords to use in nonpayment of rent cases, instructing tenants with unpaid rent to pay into the court registry the amount of rent allegedly owed or file a sworn statement denying that rent is owing, is eliminated.
Additional Changes to the Residential Landlord Tenant Act and Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act.
Any oral or written agreement between the landlord and tenant pursuant to an unlawful detainer action in which the tenant agrees to pay any amount other than for rent due or rent to retain the tenancy, pay any amount more than statutory judgment limits, or waives any rights afforded to the tenant under the court exercise of judicial discretion in nonpayment of rent cases or under the RLTA is void and unenforceable.
Stay of the Writ of Restitution.
For one year beyond the expiration of the eviction moratorium, if a tenant demonstrates an ability to pay in order to reinstate the tenancy after judgment in favor of the landlord by means of disbursement from the LMP: the restriction on a tenant who has been served with three or more notices to pay or vacate for failure to pay rent within one year may not seek relief for reinstating the tenancy does not apply.
Licensed assisted living facilities, nursing homes, adult family homes, and registered continuing care retirement communities are exempt from the provisions of the act.
Provisions relating to the appointment of counsel for indigent tenants and the eviction summons form are applied to unlawful detainer actions for MHLTA tenancies.
(In support) Those behind in rent are disproportionately low-income, people of color, and people with disabilities. The state should come together to help those behind in rent. This bill creates opportunities for landlords and tenants to come together. The repayment plans in this bill are required, and if those fail, the landlord and tenant go through the DRC process. There is strong support for this bill. The state cannot let the eviction moratorium expire without a mechanism in place. Many cities in the state, before the pandemic, were already in an affordable housing crisis. There needs to be more tools to address this crisis. The state must emerge from the pandemic with the tools necessary to support landlords and tenants. Renters who currently owe back rent are very worried about the eviction moratorium ending. Renters would like to see the eviction moratorium extended to prevent a huge number of evictions. Residents with disabilities need this bill to pass. This bill does not need means testing.
Washington would be the first state in the country to establish a right to counsel for certain tenants in unlawful detainer proceedings. This would provide huge benefits, which landlords support. Seven states are currently considering providing a right to counsel for indigent tenants. The statistics from the cities that have the right to counsel show that eviction filings have decreased significantly. Studies show that providing a right to counsel for tenants saves millions of dollars for the cities that have it. Landlords understand when they enter the industry that they are entering a heavily regulated market. There is a very real power imbalance between landlords and tenants. One way to fix this imbalance is to provide counsel for tenants who need it. The bill provides much needed legal assistance to tenants at risk of losing their housing. Approximately only 8 percent of tenants facing eviction in Washington currently have counsel. This bill could reduce evictions by as much as 86 percent, as providing the right to counsel did in New York City. The money this bill will save the state outweighs the short-term fiscal impact.
The bill provides necessary requirements to ensure that tenants are not kicked out of their homes during a pandemic. This bill provides more time to the tenants while helping them get resources. There is strong support for this bill; keeping residents housed is essential for the health outcomes of all Washingtonians. This bill has undergone a lot of changes. House Bill 1441 had more thorough protections for tenants and the more protective provisions of that bill should be added to this bill.
(Opposed) Every time the RLTA changes, it increases expenses for landlords. Changes to the RLTA have been made for the last two years, and now there is consideration of making more changes for the third year in a row. Landlords cannot keep up with these changes. The bill imposes several new restrictions on the landlords who are already struggling. The Legislature has been hard on small property owners and this bill continues that trend. The bill does not address the need right now for a compassionate end to the eviction moratorium. There needs to be a limit placed on the length of the repayment plans landlords must offer tenants. The bill has some positive aspects, but other components need to be adjusted. To ensure that those who have been most affected get assistance, the LMP reimbursement cap should be increased from $5,000 to $15,000. There is concern that the bill creates a separate class of people, those who live in hotels, and this is unconstitutional.
(In support) This bill will help stabilize tenants during a critical period. While an affordable housing crisis has been a persistent problem before COVID-19, the pandemic has been a difficult period for tenants and housing providers. The eviction moratorium has prevented tenants from falling into homelessness during the pandemic. However, without an off-ramp from the moratorium, many individuals and families will lose their housing on July 1, 2021. Without a legislative solution, tenants, housing providers, and local governments believe the end of the eviction moratorium will worsen the current homelessness crisis. It will also slow economic recovery. Census survey data shows that approximately $750 million, and possibly more, is owed in rental arrears in Washington since March 2020. While most tenants owe three months of back rent or less, those that owe six months or more account for a significant portion of the arrears owed. The rent crisis also disproportionately impacts families and people of color, especially Black renters. These are the same renters who face disproportionate likelihood of contracting COVID-19. Once tenants are more than two months behind on rent, housing providers begin operating in a deficit. This bill provides a reasonable off-ramp from the moratorium for tenants and housing providers. Tenants need hope and time, and this bill provides both.
Providing a right to counsel to tenants will help keep individuals and families in their homes. While most landlords have attorneys who specialize in eviction proceedings, tenants do not, and must navigate the process on their own. The right to counsel will provide equal access to justice, especially after the eviction moratorium expires.
Dispute resolution centers serve as intermediaries who help individuals resolve problems before going to court. The current eviction prevention pilot program has worked well to serve individuals thus far. Dispute resolution centers support expansion of the pilot program as included in the bill.