Legislators passed eviction protections. Washington landlords found loopholes

Reforms that give struggling tenants more time to make rent before facing eviction spawned a flurry of menacing notices and new worries for month-to-month renters.

Irma Serrano packs thing into a box in her living room

Irma Serrano, 47, sorts her belongings as she packs in her Renton home on Oct. 7, 2019. Serrano was given a 20-day notice to vacate the home by Oct. 15. Outside of Seattle and Tacoma, landlords in Washington don’t have to provide a reason when giving a 20-day notice to tenants. “I told him that I don’t have money or time to move,” Serrano says in Spanish. She works cleaning houses seven days a week, and she says she hasn’t had enough time to pack. She has lived in the home for 18 years and raised her three children there. She will be staying with her kids until she finds a new apartment. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

When their phones started ringing Aug. 2, tenant advocates across Washington found themselves as confused as their frightened clients. 

The calls came from different parts of the state: Tacoma, Seattle, Bellingham and Spokane. But the nature of the phone calls was strangely similar — tenants had unexpectedly received 14-day “pay or vacate” notices the day after rent was due. Most were on fixed incomes, their property managers aware that Social Security or disability payments don’t always arrive on the first of the month. Some had already paid rent but received a notice anyway.

“People living in low-income situations take pride in having not received these types of notices,” said Terri Anderson, interim executive director at the Spokane Tenants Union. “To take that away from them is just cruel.”

As it turned out, the flurry of notices was one response to tenant protections passed by the Legislature earlier in the year. Even before the new renter protections were on Gov. Jay Inslee's desk, the landlord trade association that had lobbied on the bills was showing its members how to skirt those rules. 

By issuing repeated “pay or vacate” notices, landlords can prevent renters from seeking eviction-blocking court interventions that were enhanced by the new legislation. At the same time, landlords appear to be using weak protections for month-to-month renters to remove some from their homes.

While the renters’ initial anxiety wore off as it became clear they would not face eviction and that their housing wasn't in jeopardy, confusion surrounding the systematic way the notices were issued never quite did. In fact, the new law was enacted on July 28, only five days before the calls rolled in.

The “eviction reform” bill, passed alongside three less-contentious rental housing bills, is the first significant change to Washington’s key landlord and renter’s rights regulation, the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, enacted in 1973. Crucially, the bill extended the time a tenant must pay rent before eviction can begin from three to 14 days. Under the reform, tenants facing eviction for failing to pay rent also can request a payment plan. And for the first time, judges must consider the circumstances leading up to the eviction proceeding. The bill’s supporters contend that these protections could have deterred evictions filed in Seattle in 2017 against renters who’d fallen behind by $100 or less.

The eviction reform, however, contained a loophole — tenants can lose their right to judicial intervention if they’ve been issued three “pay or vacate” notices during a 12-month period. And, though many renters count on a short grace period at the beginning of the month, landlords can issue notices on the second of the month.

Advocates’ suspicions that the flurry of “pay or vacate” notices seemed “coordinated” proved true, at least in part.

Months before the new renter protections went into effect, the Rental Housing Association of Washington, the state’s leading landlord advocacy organization, began teaching members about the law. The association’s lawyers and lobbyists helped construct the bill; after its passage, the association set about showing landlords how to protect themselves against it. 

When asked what response his association has seen since the law went into effect, association Executive Director Sean Martin said it will take “time to adjust to how the new laws work.” 

“It may take up to a year to see any large-scale trends ... to truly analyze whether this law is having the intended effect of reducing evictions in Washington state,” he said. 

Now, three months after the law was enacted, renters who have received three pay or vacate notices will no longer be entitled to judicial intervention during eviction proceedings. Other renters soon will be at risk. And the Rental Housing Association’s instructions to landlords might be expediting that process. Among the association’s recommendations published in class materials, landlords and property management companies were encouraged to “begin serving pay or vacate notices the day after rent is due when the new law goes into effect.” 

The Rental Housing Association lobbied heavily during the legislative session to shorten or block the 14-day wait before eviction can begin, and that aspect of the eviction reform has been a focus of association seminars for property owners on the new law, said Christopher D. Cutting, a landlord attorney and presenter at association events. Cutting taught a seminar a week before Inslee signed the bill. 

Residents at a low-income apartment complex in Tacoma say they and every one of their neighbors were issued a pay or vacate notice the month after the law took effect.

Donna Seay, 46, in her Tacoma apartment on Oct. 2, 2019. Despite paying her rent on time, Seay received a pay or vacate notice on Aug. 2, along with the rest of the tenants in the apartment complex. “I’ve lived in low-income housing or been homeless most of my life, and when you get that piece of paper stuck to your door, it is an immediate panic,” Seay says. The apartment complex now won’t issue notices until after the fifth of the month. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Donna Seay was in the courtyard of her apartment complex on the day the notices arrived. She recalls the shock in her neighbors, some of whom are elderly or ill, upon receiving them. The notices were handed out indiscriminately — two were left on the doors of her recently deceased neighbors.

“We shouldn’t have to go through trauma that affects low-income people to make change,” Seay said. She, like several others, received a notice despite paying her rent on time. Allied Residential, which owns the complex, did not respond to requests for comment. 

A Rental Housing Association spokesperson suggested that because “only a small percentage” of property owners are members, the association could not be blamed for the wave of menacing notices. But the panic that spread across Washington in August suggests that at least some of those property owners paid attention to the association’s recommendations.

“When we were negotiating, they asked for more time to ‘educate’ their landlords,” said Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the bill’s prime sponsor. “I would expect them to educate their people on how to comply rather than whip them into a fear-based response.” 

Kuderer and other Democrats crafted the bill after two eviction studies in Washington concluded what national studies also say: eviction is a leading causes of homelessness. Although “deeply troubled” by the association’s actions, Kuderer said some landlords have since stopped issuing the notices “indiscriminately.”  

The association also suggested landlords stop providing a grace period ahead of issuing 14-day notices. It appears that landlords also heeded this recommendation.

Rental Housing Association trainers stressed during the organization’s Rental Housing Academy that “the language in the bill does not mandate any grace period before a landlord can issue a pay or vacate for nonpayment.” For added protection, the association recommended the removal of a grace period from lease terms.

“A lot of landlords used to give grace periods before issuing a three-day notice,” the association’s Martin said. Responding to questions in an email, Martin argued grace periods are now “baked into the 14-day period.”

“The law allows the notice to be served at any point after the rent due date,” Martin said. “If the existing lease requires a grace period, the owner still has to wait for that grace period to expire before issuing the notice.”

Landlords are not required to notify tenants accustomed to a short grace period that it was being eliminated. Many of the concerned callers who received notices had previously been allowed to pay rent a few days after the first of the month, and were caught by surprise. Tenants at the mercy of Social Security or other social services’  payment schedules will still be disproportionately affected by the pay or vacate notices, Anderson said. 

Since the initial outcry, Seay’s property managers wrote a grace period into her lease, allowing her five days before a pay or vacate notice can be issued. She said she’s unsure how many of her neighbors received the same courtesy. At least one other tenant from the complex said in an interview that she had not been granted any extensions. 

Tenants pushed back in other cities as well. 

Residents of the Eleanor Apartments, a senior living facility in Bellingham, managed to get the property owner to formalize a grace period. One resident, Catherine Chambers, said about two-thirds of her neighbors don’t receive their Social Security payments until the third of the month. 

Tenants at the mostly low-income facility received letters months before the law changed informing them that anyone who didn’t pay by the first of each month would get a 14-day notice promptly on the second. Chambers’ lease specified that a pattern of “late” payments would result in an eviction.

Chambers said she and other residents confronted their property manager, who told them the property management company was simply using recommendations from the Rental Housing Association.

After questioning the property manager, residents took their concerns to the Bellingham City Council. Eventually, Chambers and the others were told that property owner Mercy Housing would allow a grace period — until the third of the month. 

“None of this would have mattered until we went and raised a stink,” she said. “I think they thought we were a bunch of old people that wouldn’t speak up for ourselves.”

Chambers said she and others “are not going to be silent,” and will speak out against other landlords with policies similar to the one Mercy Housing abandoned.

Since the renter protections went into effect, tenant advocates have also seen a flood of 20-day “no-cause” termination notices, said Xochitl Maykovich, political director of the Washington Community Action Network, a social justice organization engaged in promoting renter’s rights. No-cause terminations do not require a reason from landlords to end month-to-month tenancies. 

In training materials, the Rental Housing Association recommends landlords offer month-to-month leases, rather than fixed-term ones, so that they can use no-cause termination to remove unwanted tenants. 

A no-cause termination notice means tenants must leave within 20 days of the notice being issued. If they remain in the home after 20 days, the landlord can quickly remove them. The process moves so quickly that most tenants cannot get legal representation in time, Maykovich said.

Irma Serrano helps with dinner in her Renton home on Oct. 7, 2019. Serrano was given a 20-day notice to vacate the home by Oct. 15. Outside of Seattle and Tacoma, landlords in Washington don’t have to provide a reason when giving a 20-day notice to tenants. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Irma Serrano of Renton was issued a no-cause termination at the beginning of September. She said her landlord left her with a notice and an apology that “unfortunate circumstances” forced him to end her lease. Serrano must leave her home of 18 years by Oct. 15.

Serrano’s property owner could not be reached for comment.

Serrano’s situation is likely to become more common as landlords turn to the straightforward no-cause termination notice rather than the cumbersome eviction process. Formal eviction proceedings take longer and can be stopped more easily.

Speaking after a Rental Housing Academy seminar in May, Cutting said he expected a shift to no-cause terminations because of the “payment plan issue” created by the new eviction protections.   

Seattle is currently the only city where landlords are required to show a “just cause” before terminating a month-to-month lease.

While “just cause” legislation failed in the Legislature earlier in the year, Kuderer said they will again be put forward in 2020.

Until then, Anderson said this serves a reminder that tenants should carefully read their lease terms and become familiar with the new housing laws.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Shauna Sowersby

Shauna Sowersby a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the News Tribune and on-air at KNKX public radio.