The just cause bill is one of a few major pieces of legislation aimed at preventing a wave of evictions that could exacerbate the states homelessness crisis.
The "just cause" bill is one of a few major pieces of legislation aimed at preventing a wave of evictions that could exacerbate the state's homelessness crisis. ROB DOBI

Over the next few weeks lawmakers in Olympia will consider a few major pieces of legislation designed to strengthen tenant protections and help stem the tide of a potential wave of evictions set to begin at the end of the month, when the Governor's moratorium is scheduled to lift.

Next week the House will hear a big ol' Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, that requires landlords to offer reasonable payment plans for tenants who got behind during the pandemic, hooks up landlords with rental assistance dollars, sets up a temporary eviction resolution program, and gives poor people facing eviction the right to an attorney. (If that last provision remains in the bill, Washington would be the first state in the country to offer that protection.)

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But before the House delves into all that, this morning the Senate housing committee heard a House proposal that requires landlords to offer one of 16 good reasons before kicking out a tenant.

Advocates fear the Senate might water down the so-called "just cause" bill, sponsored by Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri, more than the House already has, giving landlords even more power in a state where they already enjoy the lion's share.

Even though we've made some progress, our eviction laws are still bad

At the moment, outside of a few Puget Sound cities, landlords can kick out month-to-month renters for no reason whatsoever with only a 20-day notice. And statewide, landlords can evict at the end of any fixed-term lease.

During the Senate hearing, several tenants described the traumatic experience of being forced to move under those conditions.

Celina Espinoza, who lives in Burlington, said landlords have evicted her family twice with only "26 days or less notice" with "no reason," forcing them to try to find a place for four people in less than a month. Tara V of the Bellingham Tenants Union said a landlord issued her a 20-day notice after cops next door complained about a BLM sign in her window. Dominque Horn, who said she lived in the Vancouver area, got behind on rent during the pandemic but was able to catch up thanks to rental assistance. A week after her landlord cashed that check, however, she was issued a 20-day notice to vacate. With Washington set to receive an estimated $500 million in rental assistance funds, tenant advocates fear Horn's experience will become a trend in the coming months.

Landlords complained that "just cause" eviction protections would make it more difficult for them to evict "problem tenants" by forcing them to prove the allegations against their tenants in court, which is definitely something they should have to do anyway. The "problems" the landlords referenced included "jumping off balconies," "noise," "smoking inside," and "other disruptive behaviors."

If Macri's bill passes, landlords could still evict troublesome renters after issuing 10-day comply-or-vacate notices and 3-day illegal activity notices, depending on the offense. The only thing that would change is that they'd just have to give a good reason for kicking out someone in a month-to-month situation, or at the end of some leases.

How the House watered down the bill

Over the weekend lawmakers in the state House passed the bill off the floor in a 54-44 vote, no thanks to three Democrats—Reps. Dave Paul, Mike Chapman, and Alicia Rule—who chose to stand with landlords and giant corporations rather than with tenants on the brink of homelessness. Profiles in courage, each and every one.

On the virtual House floor, Republicans rehearsed the old and dumb arguments heard this morning in the Senate. On the dumb side, they complained about the bill limiting a landlord's ability to boot problem tenants despite the fact that landlords would retain that right in this bill.

On the old side, the GOP again warned of landlords selling their rentals en masse as a result of the state forcing them to just give tenants a reason for evicting them. They argued that more "small landlords" leaving the market would potentially reduce the housing stock, or else open up neighborhoods to the dangers of apartment complexes run by corporations.

As they often do, the GOP supported those arguments only with anecdotes, and so they were met with anecdotes in return. Newly elected Rep. Jamila Taylor tried to calm their concerns by telling the story of her mother, who's a small landlord operating under a "just cause" ordinance. "We're in a state that's just cause, and that's just fine," she said.

At one point, Republican Rep. Vicki Kraft claimed the law "deprived landlords of due process" because "they weren't here to defend themselves," which was somewhat of a howler given the fact that Kraft is a landlord.

On that tip, several other House Republican lawmakers identified themselves as current or former landlords, including Reps. Cyndy Jacobsen, Greg Gilday (former), Chris Corry (owns two rentals), Tom Dent, and Mary Dye. I'll have to add those names to my list of landlords in the Legislature.

Though most major attempts to weaken the legislation failed, Democratic Rep. Strom Peterson watered down the bill with an amendment that allows a landlord to evict without cause with 60 days of notice in advance of the end of any first-time lease between three and 12 months.

In a text message, Macri said Peterson's amendment was a product of "years of discussion with all sides," and she believes it contributes to "a good balance to promote fairness and equity for landlords and tenants alike."

This huge concession, however, could lead to landlords defaulting to booting tenants at the end of all first-time leases to avoid being subject to the "just cause" law. This loophole exists in Seattle's "just cause" ordinance as well, which goes some way in explaining why the city has the "second-highest number of no-cause tenancy terminations in the state," Rep. Macri pointed out in testimony.

In response to that concern, though, Macri argued that normalizing such high levels of turnover would be cost prohibitive for many landlords.

The danger in the Senate

Now that the bill is in Senate, advocates worry that landlord-friendly Dems and Republicans might follow the lead of their colleagues in the House and push to exempt fixed-term leases from the proposal altogether, which would essentially insert the Seattle loophole into the legislation.

Over the phone, Sen. Kuderer, who chairs the Senate's housing committee, said she hadn't heard anything from anyone on the committee about the "just cause" bill, but added that "there's always potential for concerns to be raised on both sides of the aisle."

That said, she personally feels that housing is a human right, and that the bill is "important" to meet that end, especially "given the circumstances."

According to the latest data from the Household Pulse Survey, nearly 47,000 Washingtonians see the prospect of eviction in the next two months as "very likely" (~18,800) or "somewhat likely" (~28,100). Meanwhile, over 136,000 renters across the state say they're not caught up on rent.

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Several studies and surveys show a causal relationship between evictions and homelessness, a crisis the pandemic has only exacerbated.

And, because this is America, where years of bad public policy plundered the wealth of Black and brown people, those communities are represented in these figures in disproportionally high numbers.

"All things flow from having a roof over your head, so I think it's incumbent upon us to make sure that when someone loses their tenancy, it's for a good reason," Kuderer said.