Our eviction laws suck.
Our eviction laws suck. mrdoomits / GETTY

We've long known that eviction is a leading cause of homelessness. And yet, in the middle of a homelessness crisis, Washington state maintains some of the most draconian and unforgiving eviction laws in the country.

Under current state law, landlords can kick out tenants only three days after serving an eviction notice. They also only have to provide 30 days notice if they plan to raise rents. (Seattle has an exception. Landlords have to give 60 days notice if they plan to raise the rent by 10 percent or more.)

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These eviction laws are less fair than the ones in Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and 21 other states. And they lead to some pretty fucked up circumstances.

A report from the Seattle Women's Commission and the Housing Justice Project found that over 50 percent of evicted renters in Washington have been kicked out for owning "one month or less" in rent. Sometimes that amount is comically small. One person was evicted for owing $49. Another was nearly evicted for owing $2.00. The report also found that a majority of evicted renters have to pay their landlord's court costs and attorney fees, adding insult to injury.

But this year, Democrats in Olympia are introducing new bills to bring Washington's laws up to speed.

On Monday Sen. Patty Kuderer introduced SB 5600, which would give renters 14 days to respond to eviction notices, require the notice to list civil legal aid resources, and allow judges to consider the circumstances surrounding an eviction. Landlords would also have to provide 60 days notice before making any changes to rent.

"The reason for going to the 14 days notice is because, in the states that already have this, 14 days is sufficient time for the tenants to make up the shortfall and avoid an eviction," Kuderer said over the phone. "The vast majority of deficiencies are $100 or less," she added.

Given that most people only fall behind one month or less, and given that most people in America live paycheck-to-paycheck, giving people two weeks to scrounge up rent money makes sense. And while several organizations offer to pay lapsed rent to prevent evictions, that process takes longer than three days to complete. Extending the response time to 14 days would help renters access that assistance.

Sen. Kuderer said she's looking into doing a study about the effectiveness of requiring civil legal aid in all eviction cases, and she also wants to make renters assistance programs "more robust."

Landlords have two main concerns about the bill.

At a hearing in the Housing Stability and Affordability Committee on Monday, Rob Trickler, president of Washington Landlord Association, argued without data that the bill "will devastate the amount of rental innovatory out there and raise the cost of housing." Sen. Kuderer disputes that characterization. "Based on a preliminary review of housing data in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, there hasn't been this exodus of landlords," she said.

Errin Reynolds, another member of the WLA, claimed that landlords might be unable to pay their mortgages if they can't kick people out after three days notice. But Steve Williams, a private landlord and property manager, said in his 12 years of experience he's never heard of an instance where a landlord had to default on a mortgage because of a tenant missing a month's rent payment.

Sen. Kuderer added that she was "sensitive" to the concerns of these landlords, but she argued that, in other states, missing some rent money doesn't appear to lead to landlords defaulting on mortgages. "Every renter would have to default at the same time to make the landlord default," she said. "[Landlords] also have reserves of funds for repair costs, which they can tap into in emergencies."

"I'm more than happy to get their evidence showing me that this is a real concern, but I'd like to address concerns that are fact-based," Kuderer added.

Kuderer has "high hopes" that the bill will pass, but she's unsure if any Republicans will sign on. "I would love for this to be a bipartisan bill because I don't think homelessness is a Democratic or a Republican issue. It's a moral failing that we have the extent of homelessness that we have in our state. We have to look at the root causes so we can get ourselves out of this crisis," she said. The bill currently has 16 cosponsors—all Democrats.

Republicans on the Senate housing committee were not available for comment by press time. I'll update this post when I hear back from them.

In the House, Rep. Nicole Macri introduced two bills related to eviction. One of those bills serves as a quasi-companion bill to Kuderer's. There are a couple of differences, but the main one is that Macri's bill extends the vacate or pay notice to 21 days. Over the phone, Macri said, "Fourteen days is good, but sometimes it's not sufficient. It depends on the timing of when people get paid."

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Other Democratic lawmakers are introducing bills that would end no-cause evictions (so that landlords can't kick you out with 20 days notice for any reason they'd like), prohibit mid-lease rent increases, mandate mediation between landlords and tenants, and allow renters to pay move-in fees in installments. All of these bills are aimed to keep people in homes when they have them and to ease the transition when they're forced to move for one reason or another.

Macri isn't confident that Republicans will get on these bills, but she says she's looking forward to working with Rep. Andrew Barkis, a Republican on the House's housing committee, who has dropped an eviction reform bill of his own that would extend the pay or vacate notice to "3 to 5 days."

That said, with healthy majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats don't need Republicans to sign onto these bills. They just need a floor vote and nearly complete party support. In order to get that, House leadership needs to see these bills as a priority. If you want to tell them to prioritize these bills, call your representative and give them a little nudge.

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