In today's Seattle City Council sustainability and renters' rights committee, Councilmember Tammy Morales will unveil legislation to close Seattle's fixed-term lease loophole, which allows landlords to evict people on yearlong leases without reason by not renewing their lease.
Even though Seattle secured just-cause protections—laws that prohibit landlords from evicting tenants without reason—in 1980, this glaring loophole in those rules consistently leaves tenants in the lurch.
According to the King County Bar Association, kicking people out at the end of their leases amounted to the second-most common way King County landlords evicted renters in 2019.
Housing advocates at the Housing Justice Project have tried for years to close this loophole, and they've finally started to see some success recently. Yesterday Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill that would effectively achieve this goal statewide, giving tenants more time to search for other places or else settle within the stability of leases.
But Morales's bill would do more. With a pandemic-induced eviction crisis looming at the end of next month, advocates say Seattle renters could use all the protections they can get.
Just cause on the honor system
"The legislation is going to basically extend just-cause eviction protections to everyone in the city," and not just to those on month-to-month leases, Devin Silvernail, a legislative aide in Morales's office told The Stranger.
Back in 2000, the King County Superior Court ruled in Carlstrom v. Hanline that just-cause protections didn't apply to fixed-term leases, only month-to-month leases, agreements that open tenants up to rent hikes.
Since then, fixed-term leases in Seattle have been "sort of just cause on the honor system," said Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri. "A landlord could choose to honor just cause by allowing a lease to roll into month-to-month, or they can reserve the right to evict the tenant when the lease was up."
Because it's up to the landlord to renew a lease or not, they often retaliate against tenants through no-cause terminations, said Erin Fenner, the communications director for Washington CAN.
As rent comes due at the end of the eviction moratorium, housing advocates worry disgruntled landlords will start canceling leases for their tenants who struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic, Fenner said.
Pandemic aside, landlords have evicted "needy tenants" who ask for fixes or who call out problems with their housing situation, she added.
In 2019, Federal Way voters passed sweeping just cause protections that didn't include a fixed-term lease loophole. That legislation came about after a landlord evicted a Federal Way mother for asking the landlord to fix her washing machine. He ended her lease. He didn't fix her washing machine.
"We want to make sure people feel like they’re in a position where they can hold their landlord accountable to really basic needs," Fenner said.
Landlords use these evictions to discriminate, too. Black tenants accounted for 22.8% of all the no-cause lease terminations in King County in 2019 while only making up 17% of the population.
Morales's bill would close the loophole by automatically converting fixed-term leases to month-to-month leases if a landlord doesn't offer to renew the lease before the fixed term expires. Her bill will also allow tenants to rescind mutual termination agreements if they were pressured into the agreements.
Her bill, if passed, will bolster that statewide protections Macri won this year.
Tenant protections across the state
"I'm very glad that the city council is working on this issue," Macri said.
During the legislative session this year, lawmakers finally passed Macri's sweeping, statewide just-cause protections bill. An emergency clause in the proposal put the protections in place the second the ink on Inslee's signature dried yesterday.
The vast majority of tenants in Washington live on month-to-month leases, so most of the state's renters will be covered by these protections. However, the Senate watered down her bill by removing language she included to close the fixed-term lease loopholes.
Macri's bill does provide protections to the end of certain leases, but they're ambiguous, Tram Tran-Larsen, the community engagement manager for the HJP, said. She called the state bill's protections against no-cause lease terminations "confusing."
"This loophole does exist [in the new state law], but there’s a lot of caveats to it," Tran-Larsen said. "It's confusing the way that it’s written, but it does leave room for interpretation, which is why it’s so important for Seattle to close this loophole and really strengthen this just-cause protection."
Macri said that Morales's bill avoids "these 'if, then' situations" that exist in the state bill by saying "just cause applies to all tenancies regardless of whether they’re month-to-month." That, Macri said, "would be stronger."
A renter's Bill of Rights
Earlier this year, the council passed a right to counsel for all Seattle tenants facing eviction. Morales's bill to close the lease loophole will be up for a vote later this month. She also plans to introduce a bill to create an eviction defense for "anyone who’s faced hardship for the pandemic," Silvernail said. That could stop people who face eviction from losing their homes after the moratorium lifts.
"Landlords and the public are focused on the fact that we passed right-to-counsel already and that tenants will have access to an attorney," Tran-Larsen said, "but what can those attorneys actually do if you don’t pass legislation and give actual protection to tenants?"
Tran-Larsen said that the HJP, which provides attorneys for people facing eviction, is hiring more attorneys in preparation for the end of the moratorium, but those numbers won't matter without an eviction defense or without tenant protections.
"This stuff has to be passed before [the moratorium lifts], " Tran-Larsen said, "Otherwise, we’ll just have a bunch of attorneys sitting there trying to stop the bleeding, but they can’t because they don’t have a defense."
You can tune into the discussion on Morales' bill here at 2 p.m.