Seattle tenants have a new protection against big rent hikes.

The city now requires landlords who raise rents and fees by 10% or more after July 1 to pay certain tenants who move out after the increase. 

Approved unanimously by the Seattle City Council in the fall, the program is meant to help tenants facing economic displacement, when a big rent hike forces them to move out. 

It’s not clear how many tenants may seek help from the new program, and landlords are considering suing.

The law takes effect as tenants face rising rents. After rental prices in Seattle and other costly cities dropped in the early days of the pandemic, they rapidly rebounded and have surpassed pre-pandemic levels. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle is $1,667, up 12% from this time last year and 6% from the same time in 2019, according to Apartment List.

Not everyone will qualify for the new help. 

To receive Economic Displacement Relocation Assistance, a tenant must face an increase of at least 10% of their total housing costs, which includes rent plus other fees the landlord charges, such as pet rent, parking or fixed utilities, within one year. (That could be one 10% hike or several smaller increases.)

The tenant’s household must also make 80% of the area median income or less. That’s $66,750 for a single person and $85,800 for a family of three. And, before applying for assistance, they must notify their landlord in writing that they plan to move out.

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Once the city determines that a tenant qualifies, the city will pay them three months of their housing costs and the landlord will be required to reimburse the city.  

Seattle landlords are required to give six months’ notice of rent hikes. Tenants can apply for relocation assistance at any point after receiving the rent increase until two months after the increase goes into effect. To avoid extra costs, the city recommends renters choose a move-out date that lines up with the end of their lease.

Because the tenant must tell their landlord they plan to move out before applying for help, renters should be careful to ensure they qualify. Tenants can apply on the city’s website. (Visit seattle.gov/rentinginseattle and click “I am a renter,” then “Moving out” and “Economic Displacement Relocation Assistance.”)

Landlords should “look carefully” at how much they’re raising costs and “be aware of whether they’re crossing that threshold of a 10% increase over a year,” said Geoff Tallent, rental programs manager at the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections. Landlords issuing those increases must provide a notice telling tenants about their rights under the new program. 

Questions remain about how the program will roll out. 

After lawmakers in Portland passed a similar bill, which required landlords to pay relocation assistance after 10% rent hikes or no-cause evictions, landlords sued. (They eventually lost in the Oregon Supreme Court.)

Seattle landlords are eyeing a challenge of their own.

The Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents landlords, held off on suing before the law took effect, but is “examining” a challenge based on how the law is applied, said executive director Sean Flynn. The group would likely argue that the law is unconstitutional, Flynn said, but he declined to share details. 

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“Our legal defense team is looking at this with a close eye to see how it’s implemented,” he said.

If landlords don’t reimburse the city or tenants don’t move out, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections could pursue legal action against them, but the department rarely uses that authority for other laws.

Local landlord groups have previously sued over city rental regulations, often arguing they violate landlords’ due process rights or violate the state constitution’s takings clause, which says private property cannot be taken without compensation. But they have lost most of those efforts.

Beyond legal questions, the program will not offer any new help to tenants whose incomes exceed the limits or whose landlords issue rent increases of, say, 9.5%.

The city has no real sense of how many people may apply for the program.

“We just don’t know how often we’re going to get eligible tenants coming. We’ve done the best we can to be ready for those,” Tallent said. 

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Seattle has a similar program for low-income tenants displaced by renovations, but those cases usually play out over a longer period of time and the city splits the cost with landlords. Before the pandemic, about 150 to 200 households received payment from that program each year.

Tenants with questions can call the city’s rental hotline at 206-684-5700. 

But nonemergency questions may take a week or two to receive a response. Call volumes to that line have spiked this year, especially after the expiration of Seattle’s eviction moratorium in February.