What’s in HB 1853 to better protect tenants?

I get a lot of political advocacy email. I got one asking me to comment in favor of Washington House bill 1853 to better protect tenants. It’s primary sponsor is Nicole Macri who by all accounts is awesome and the advocacy group’s summary sounded like a great thing for us to change, so I commented and expressed the sentiment that tenants should be as secure in housing as home owners are. Anyway, I couldn’t find any articles quickly when I did comment, so here I am reading the full text the next day. 🙂

Important Changes

The most important changes I see are:

  • When a residential tenant has been notified they are not current with rent, they have 21 days to catch up rather than the three (3!) under current law before they are illegally occupying. Yes, that is current Washington law. If you’re late 3 days on any part of your rent, you are “unlawfully detaining” the property.
  • When catching up on rent, either with a court eviction order or not, the tenant only has to catch up on late rent, not payments for other things like repairs, attorneys’ fees, etc. This is no doubt to prevent abuses like a tenant being only a little behind on rent, but then a landlord manages to add on other charges which make it impossible for a tenant to avoid a disruptive eviction.
  • The landlord must apply payments from the tenant to outstanding rent before they apply it to charges for damage, etc. This seems obvious and yet it’s not the case currently and obviously allows landlords who want to be abusive to be more so.
  • When an eviction has been ordered primarily due to unpaid rent, the tenant has 5 court days to pay up on their rent and any interested parties can pay the back rent to the court and if the rent is caught up (other charges may still be outstanding), then the eviction won’t proceed. The time period being court days (under the proposed legislation) may seem small, but not having that clock ticking over a weekend seems good. It also removed a clause that made these rules only apply to rentals covered under an active lease which presumably means that under current law, a month-to-month tenant finds it harder to just pay up their late rent to avoid eviction.

Smaller Changes

There are a number of what are obviously just grammatical and style fixes, but there are a number of smaller changes that seem like they might be helpful but don’t seem as impactful.

  • The form that is used to notify a tenant they need to respond to eviction proceedings (“summons for unlawful detainer”) is replaced with a new one. I don’t know why this is in RCW at all, but it is. The new language seems more clear to me and includes information directing people to third-party legal help (the current language is just vague “you can get a lawyer”). I guess it might help some folks realize the process is serious and help them self-help.
  • In a couple places, the court is granted authority to not require eviction or to stay their decision for a period of time if they deem it in the interests of justice. The various added clauses seem pretty open-ended so I wonder how it would work in practice.
  • When a court has ordered eviction not due to late rent but due to some bad condition the tenant created, the court is allowed to stay the judgement and set a reasonable period for the tenant to repair. The time periods aren’t set but left up to the court. This is a new section which makes me wonder how this works in practice now.
  • RCW 59.18.375 is entirely repealed and I don’t understand how it interacts with the rest but it’s a pretty big section!

What’s Missing?

Obviously a lot of commonly desired tenant protections are missing from this bill! But since the bill text repeats the existing text of various sections to show the amendments, I obviously read more than the changes. The most shocking thing I noticed is around normal notice of termination of tenancy. Obviously there are circumstances when a landlord might ask a tenant who isn’t behind on rent to leave. Under current state law, they only have to give 20 days notice. If you continue to occupy the property, you’re “illegally detaining” it. By comparison, the state of Arizona (a place I’ve been a tenant in) requires 30 days. I can’t even imagine finding a new place to rent within 20 days in Seattle.

Now to go hunt up what other tenant protection bills are being considered this session, as this one doesn’t seem like nearly enough.