King County lawmakers could pass a slate of new tenant protections Tuesday, the latest jurisdiction to do so amid increasing awareness of evictions and housing instability during the pandemic.
The county proposal would limit the reasons landlords in unincorporated areas of the county could evict tenants or decline to renew their leases. The bill would also require more advance notice for many rent hikes, cap extra fees and narrow the use of Social Security numbers for screening tenants. The changes would be permanent, lasting beyond current pandemic-related eviction moratoriums.
Renters make up roughly 1 in 5 households in unincorporated King County. In some areas, such as Skyway and West Hill, 42% of households rent, according to the county.
Advocates say the new rules will protect tenants from unfair treatment and help ensure stability beyond the pandemic. Landlords warn against another round of regulation, saying the law would make it harder for small landlords to stay in business.
At the center of the county proposal is the latest iteration of what advocates call “just-cause” protections. Those rules require landlords to provide one of about a dozen reasons in order to end a renter’s tenancy, such as unpaid rent or broken leases.
Landlords could also remove tenants due to criminal activity, because the owner wants to move in or sell the home, or in cases when the landlord plans “substantial rehabilitation” of the building and has applied for at least one permit for that work.
The rules would apply not just to evicting a tenant but also to ending or refusing to renew a lease. A landlord could still change the terms of a lease, such as shortening the lease or increasing the rent with proper notice, before renewing it.
“It’s not like we’re saying landlords can’t evict,” said Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who sponsored the legislation with Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay and Dave Upthegrove. “It’s just: You want to evict this person? Have a valid reason. Don’t just do something willy-nilly because you don’t like someone.”
Seattle and Federal Way have similar rules on the books, and the state passed its own version this spring, though the state law includes more exceptions than the county version. Prior to the new state law, landlords could end certain tenancies without providing any reason.
Jim Henderson, a lobbyist for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, said new county rules will add confusion for landlords.
“Housing providers haven’t even had a chance to use any of the new legislation,” he said of the state rules.
Tram Tran-Larson, community engagement manager at the Housing Justice Project, which supported the legislation, said keeping up on new laws is part of a landlord’s responsibilities.
“We’re comparing an inconvenience versus somebody losing their housing,” Tran-Larson said.
Beyond limiting the reasons for ending a tenancy, the county proposal would make several other key changes.
The law would cap move-in fees and security deposits at one month’s rent and allow those to be paid in installments. Late fees would be capped at 1.5%. And landlords would be required to give 120 days’ notice for rent increases greater than 3%.
If a landlord violated the new county laws, a tenant could sue for up to three times their rent as damages.
Landlords testified against the proposed new rules at recent council meetings, arguing the patchwork of different regulations is difficult to track across multiple city and state laws. The rules can discourage landlords from operating, they said. Some said they worry just-cause provisions will make it harder to remove tenants who are a nuisance to their neighbors.
“We’re not evil,” said Renton landlord Nora Schultz at a council meeting this month. “It’s very disconcerting the way that this business has been treated by the state and by local authorities for the last three years.”
Tenants and advocates spoke in favor.
“We need consistency across the board. Folks who are living in unincorporated lands in urban centers are so often missing out on services and resources that are not available to them because the county hasn’t made a consistent law,” said Matthew Lang, a renter and organizer with the Transit Riders Union, at a recent council meeting.
Under the county proposal, landlords could request — but not require — prospective tenants to provide Social Security numbers.
The provision is meant to protect renters who are undocumented and may not have a Social Security number. Landlords have argued the provision limits their ability to accurately vet future renters. Zahilay, a sponsor of the legislation, pointed out that it is possible to run a credit check without a Social Security number.
“Our intent is not to ban credit screenings, neither is the reality that we’re banning credit screenings,” Zahilay told his colleagues at a meeting last week. “Our intent is to protect undocumented people who are at high risk of homelessness.”
The county would also allow public defenders to represent tenants facing eviction if funding became available. Councilmember Kathy Lambert has argued landlords should also be able to get public representation, but other council members have shown little appetite for that change.
A University of Washington study of evictions between 2013 and 2017 found just 8% of tenants had legal representation. Nationally, advocacy groups estimate 90% of landlords have legal representation during evictions.
The state has also approved a measure to give low-income tenants access to lawyers, though the program is still being set up.