Good news for people who don't want to be pushed into a painful cycle of homelessness due to our state's draconian eviction laws! Wednesday afternoon the Senate approved a sweeping evictions reform bill, sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer. The proposal, which passed 30-18 with bipartisan support, is now on its way to Governor Inslee's desk. Here's hoping he just signs the thing and doesn't veto parts of it.
"This is the biggest reform to the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act since it was enacted in the 1970s," said Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri, who worked on a House version of the bill.
The proposal gives tenants 14 days (instead of only three days) to respond to an eviction notice, which is huge. Temporary financial setbacks account for a large percentage of missed rent payments, according to a report from the Seattle Women's Commission. Giving people another week for a paycheck to hit so they can catch up on rent will help keep people in homes.
The eviction notices themselves will now be written in plain English, rather than impenetrable legalese. In committee hearings people facing eviction testified about giving up before going to court because they were confused by the process, Rep. Macri said, in part because the notices were unclear. This measure gives landlords actual language they can use to prevent that from happening.
The bill also allows judges to use discretion when issuing judgements in eviction cases. If a tenant can't pay because they're missing work due to a medical condition, for instance, a judge can take that situation into consideration and put them on a payment plan.
To protect landlords from getting stiffed, the legislation also expands the Landlord Mitigation Fund. If a renter defaults on a payment plan with a landlord, the state will cover the amount owed and work out a payment plan with the tenant.
Except, of course, for the five House Democrats who voted against the bill along the way. Reps Kristine Reeves, Eric Pettigrew, Zach Hudgins, Larry Springer, and Brian Blake. When you think of people who make bad arguments, think of them.
Despite recalcitrance from those Democrats and most Republicans, however, the fact that such a controversial bill got introduced, vetted, and passed in one session is pretty remarkable.
"It's very rare," Macri said. She credits the patience and good faith of both tenant advocates and landlords. "Private landlords stayed at the table, they really engaged in compromise," she said. "I've been doing advocacy work long before I came to the Legislature, and this was the most collaborative, positive dialogue between landlords and tenants I've seen." Macri serves as the deputy director of Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides emergency shelter and services to people experiencing homelessness.
Gina Owens says the bill's passage is a "pretty big deal" for her, too. Back in 2001, a car accident put her out of work for a while. Unable to pay rent or negotiate a payment plan that worked, her landlord evicted her. The process took just three weeks from start to finish, and she ended up falling into a years-long cycle of homelessness as a result. "There was no wiggle room for me to be able to strike a deal and keep myself in my apartment. That's going to change now because judges are going to have discretion," she said.
Owens, who's now been in permanent housing in the Central District for 13 years, and who provided personal testimony on the bill in committees, says the legislation will help plenty of people she knows and works with stay in their homes.
Over the phone, Sen. Kuderer, chair of the Senate's Housing Stability and Affordability Committee, called the bill "landmark legislation" that helps "balance the interests of tenants and landlords."
Over the course of the next few years, Kuderer promises to monitor the effectiveness of the bill using data from the Department of Commerce. If she sees eviction numbers decrease, or if judges end up not sustaining a lot of eviction cases, "that will be telling," she said.
She's also curious about whether Washington will see a drop in housing inventory. Landlords were forever claiming, without any data, that updating our eviction laws would exacerbate our housing crisis. If "mom and pop" landlords couldn't begin eviction proceedings after three days, the thinking went, then they'd all sell their homes and exit the field.
The trouble with that argument, from Kuderer's point of view, is that housing stock has dropped in exactly zero of the other states that have 14-day pay-or-vacate notices. "But I'll be looking closely to see if that ends up being the case here in Washington," she said.
Update: Two other evictions bills passed through the legislature recently, too. A proposal from Rep. June Robinson requires landlords to notify tenants 60 days before raising the rent by any amount, which is pretty significant. In Seattle landlords only have to notify 60 days in advance if the rent will go up more than 10%. A bill from Rep. Andy Barkis (R-Eatonville) requires landlords to provide tenants 120 notice before they plan to evict in order to tear down a building or renovate, which would prevent stuff like the Tiki Apartments fiasco from happening again.
Besides keeping track of the impacts of eviction reform, Kuderer and Macri also plan to push forward with more tenant protections next session. Macri wants to spread just-cause legislations statewide.
Macri also wants to work toward a prohibition on rent gouging, citing a recent law in Oregon that bars landlords from raising the rent more than 7 percent plus the consumer price index.
Kuderer says the Housing Stability and Affordability Committee will have a debrief meeting on Friday to discuss what they've done and what they want to get done. Kuderer wants to partner with the Senate's Behavioral Health Subcommittee in order to address the places where mental health, addiction, and housing instability intersect. "That's a big, challenging issue," she said, "It's not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. It'll take a lot of different policies working in concert."
Mostly, Kuderer says, she'll be looking at finding ways to expand permanent supportive housing. "It works," she said. "Incarcerating people for being homeless or having mental health issues or addiction issues is not the answer."