If you're new to Seattle, chances are you're a renter. Renters occupy more than half of the housing units in this city. And many more are on the way—the city expects about 100,000 people to move here in the next 20 years. Although the city is in the middle of a housing construction boom, rents are continuing to steadily increase (the average one-bedroom apartment in Seattle costs $1,592 a month, according to RentJungle.com).
This is one reason that Seattle is, unfortunately, not the friendliest place for renters. Rent control is illegal in Washington State, so landlords are free to raise the rent as much as they'd like. No surprise, housing affordability has been a central issue in the city, and the mayor commissioned a Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda to come up with a plan to create more affordable housing.
While we wait for that plan to be fully implemented, city officials say they're seeing more complaints about rent increases because of the recent growth spurt in Seattle. In addition, "many low-income tenants are requesting relocation assistance because they are being displaced by construction and development," said Wendy Shark, a spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.
Steven Le at the Tenants Union of Washington State said he's also noticed a lot of folks trying to break their leases recently. "Under Washington State laws, if a tenant breaks their lease without consent of their landlord, the tenant is liable for rent up until the lease is over," he wrote in an e-mail.
Shark said the city also tends to see the same complaints year after year, usually related to the weather (water leaks and lack of sufficient heat), bugs, and plumbing or sanitation issues. All of which raises the question: What rights do tenants actually have and who should they call to complain if their landlord isn't treating them appropriately?
Q: Can my landlord raise my rent willy-nilly?
Kind of. A landlord cannot change any aspect of a lease during your lease term unless you both agree to it. Landlords can raise the rent as much as they want as long as they give you proper notice and are not raising the rent to discriminate or retaliate against you. If your rent is going to go up 10 percent or more in a 12-month period, you're entitled to 60 days' notice.
Q: Can my landlord evict me whenever he or she wants?
In Seattle, a landlord can end a month-to-month lease only for one of the 18 reasons listed in the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance. Landlords must give written notice, usually at least 20 days before the end of a rent period, typically the end of the month.
Q: Is it legal for landlords to ask me any screening questions in the application process?
Landlords can use whatever screening criteria they want, as long as they aren't being discriminatory. If they ask a question of you, they must ask it of all their renters.
Q: How much can my landlord charge in screening or move-in costs? Is there any limit?
Landlords can charge prospective tenants only the actual cost of screening fees. Also, they must give you written notice regarding what the screening will entail and what information could result in the application being denied. Application and screening fees generally cost $35 to $75 per person. Landlords cannot profit from application fees.
Move-in fees, such as for cleaning, are also legal. However, they must be specifically designated as nonrefundable and cannot be considered deposits. (Under the law, deposits are refundable.) If your landlord charges you nonrefundable fees and does not provide you with a written rental agreement, the landlord must return those nonrefundable fees.
Q: What sort of complaints with my unit is my landlord liable for?
Landlords must exterminate insects, rodents, and other pests that are a menace to public health, safety, or welfare. They must also remove "any article, substance, or material imminently hazardous to the health, safety, or general welfare of the occupants or the public, or which may substantially contribute to or cause deterioration of the building to such an extent that it may become a threat to the health, safety, or general welfare of the occupants or the public," according to the Seattle Municipal Code.
Q: Whom do I complain to if I have a problem?
According to the Tenant Union's Steven Le, there is no one governing body in Seattle that handles enforcement of landlord-tenant laws. Who you should contact depends on what type of housing you live in and what the nature of your complaint is. If you live in a city-subsidized unit, the Seattle Office of Housing will handle your complaints. If you feel you are the subject of discrimination, contact the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. For denials of accommodations for tenants with disabilities, contact the Fair Housing Center of Washington. The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections handles inspections and recommendations for repairs.
"Tenants should contact the Tenants Union any time they're unsure about how to proceed with a landlord on just about any issue," said Le. "We take all questions as long it's about a residential property in Washington State"—with exemptions for hospitals, university dorms, jails, and mobile homes. For more information, go to tenantsunion.org.
Much of this information comes from the Tenants Union and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections websites.