2019 Legislative Wrap Up and What's at Stake in 2020
For most small housing providers, the policies passed by our state legislature in 2019 felt like an assault on the very idea of rental property ownership. Often RHAWA members ask me why new proposed laws seem to conflict with how the housing market works, or neglect the daily struggles of keeping rental housing safe, affordable, and available for their tenants.
I know our industry feels fatigued and frustrated by the unending assault of media attacks and regulatory proposals, and it can be easier to think about taking property out of the rental market, rather than navigate Washington’s current political environment.
Local governments are continually pursuing aggressive and illegal policies that undermine small landlords’ ability to keep their housing available. Wealthy donor funded and publicly funded social justice groups are organizing around our region’s high cost housing to push their broad progressive agendas. In both public and private discussions the Legislature has become increasingly fragmented and factional, with aggressive activism replacing reasoned advocacy.
While, historically, lawmakers in Washington bring stakeholders together to attempt to craft a policy that is workable for industry regulation, it feels like the policy discussions on housing are becoming more and more about punishing rental property owners for simply owning something. RHAWA firmly believes that the best way for our region to have a healthy housing market is with small, local investors directly maintaining rental housing within the neighborhoods where they work and live. However, an objective view at the state of rental housing in 2019 has led many to wonder if pursuing local property ownership is the right way to secure their retirements.
RHAWA members have endured 2019’s regulatory storm, and are attempting to come into compliance with a myriad of changes, including: extended rent-increase notification periods, increased pay-or-vacate periods, just-cause termination policies, mandatory security deposit payment plans, first-in-time tenant screening policies, mandatory payment plans for evicted tenants, damage liability protections for domestic violence actors, mandatory tenant protections for roommates with familial or “dating” relationships, limiting of monetary eviction judgments, restriction on unlawful detainer attorney’s fees, restrictions of late fees allowed, prevention of eviction for nonpayment of anything other than rent, and many more minor changes. While the list of changes is dizzying, the list of proposed policies that have not become law is even more daunting.
Many RHAWA members and others working in the industry testified in the 2019 public committee hearings on SSB 5600 that a drastic increase in the pay-or-vacate notice period would force property owners to integrate their voluntary grace periods at the beginning of the month into the new 14 day pay-or-vacate notice period. Tenant advocates and lawmakers in support of the legislation argued that getting the notice as early as possible would allow tenants who need financial support from other sources to use the notice to receive subsidies.
Because SSB 5600 restricted evictions for moneys owed narrowly to rent, landlords are now forced to pursue fees through other civil procedures. Tenants who now cannot be evicted for accruing late fees have little incentive to pay their rent before the due date in a 14 day pay-or-vacate notice, and even if they do miss the period, the bill allows them to pursue mandatory reinstatement of tenancies with payment plans that could last as long as three months. Because SSB 5600 practically doubled the amount of time a property owner would have to wait before regaining control of their property when a tenant fails to pay the rent, the legislation attempted to prevent abuse of the new policy by stating that a tenant cannot receive reinstatement when they have received three or more pay-or-vacate notices from the property owner.
But tenant advocates, and some lawmakers, are not happy with these changes. Some tenants have received pay-or-vacate notices earlier than they are used to, and do not like the stigma of receiving these notices. To address the new issues they had with the agreements made in 2019 tenant advocates will pursue legislation in 2020 that would create a mandatory 3-day grace period before landlords can serve pay-or-vacate notices for properties with 10 units or more. Even though the Legislature imposed an 11 day increase for pay-or-vacate notices in 2019, lawmakers like Senator Patty Kuderer (D-48), the prime sponsor of SSB 5600, and chair of the Senate Housing Committee, are upset with the way that the industry has reacted to her bill, and has drafted language that will also remove the three-strikes protections that prevent tenants from receiving mandatory payment plans for eviction judgments and mandatory reinstatement of tenancies.
Further, Senator Kuderer will likely sponsor a statewide just cause termination bill, similar to the policy that passed at the ballot in Federal Way in 2019. This form of just cause policy has no probationary period, no ability to preempt local governments who want to pursue their own eviction and termination policies – like Seattle’s proposed ban on all evictions for any reason between the months of November through March – and would apply just cause protections automatically at the end of fixed-term lease periods, essentially creating an inability to end a lease agreement.
While the fight on eviction policy isn’t over in Olympia, there will also be attempts to restrict property owners’ ability to view criminal records in tenant screening reports – similar to the City of Seattle’s policy, mandate state-wide security deposit payment plans, and require landlords to produce receipts of repair costs before withholding security deposits.
Certainly the state of private housing policy can be scary when viewed from a distance. As the layering of local and state policies increase costs to maintain rental units, the vitriol in the media and in public discussions will grow alongside those costs as lawmakers and activists push towards rent control policies to address the eventual rent increases that their punitive regulations have fostered. The only way our industry can endure the current housing climate is to continually advocate for more housing creation, collaborative regulation to reform bad landlords, and broad subsidy programs that address the needs of the many vulnerable renters we house.
Please consider donating your time to RHAWA’s advocacy efforts by participating in our Legislative Day on the Hill on February 11, 2020, and following our call-to-action communications to participate in public hearings on specific bills.
The only way we will prevent short-sighted laws from being enacted is to continually and consistently educate our elected officials that we care deeply about the neighborhoods we live in that house their constituents. We must come together and remind all our public officials that we play a critical role in protecting affordable housing in the communities that collectively house so many around Washington State.