An article which appeared in last Saturday’s Tacoma News Tribune highlighting new landlord-tenant laws included several assertions by tenant advocates claiming that landlords are intentionally attempting to remove protections granted to them under the new law. To set the record straight, rental housing industry experts negotiated all changes to the RLTA in good faith.
Any new law or change to an existing law necessitates an adjustment period to better understand the unintended consequences to both tenants and landlords. This helps both parties learn and adjust to the effects resulting from changes to the law or from the business practices on those in which the law applies.
In late July, the most significant changes to Washington’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA) since its inception in 1973 went into effect.
Under the new law, tenants are provided a substantially longer period to pay their rent – 14 days to pay rent or vacate, up from 3 prior to July 28, 2019. Most of the time, property managers and landlords, whether managing a 100-unit building or a single-family home, have offered a 3 to 5 day grace period beyond the rent due date before issuing “Pay or Vacate” notices to tenants. In fact, many lease agreements have a grace period written into them as a specified term of the contract itself.
With the changes to the RLTA now in effect, tenants have until at least the 15th of the month to pay past-due rent before a manager or landlord can begin eviction proceedings to regain control of a rental property. Under the new law, the grace period is baked into the pay-or-vacate period of 14-days so that a grace period is always provided. This point was agreed upon and understood by all parties, including tenant advocates, who negotiated this law.
During the legislative session, lawmakers raised concern over the substantial increase in the notice period and the potential that landlords will immediately issue a fourteen-day notice as opposed to working with the tenant. In fact, we advocated for a solution which would have mandated a 5 day grace period, with a 10 Day Pay or Vacate Notice following thereafter. Other stakeholders in this process would not agree to that proposal even though it would result in less pay or vacate notices being served.
Tenant advocates did not see service of a pay or vacate notice as a bad thing, however. In fact, the lead negotiator for tenant advocates and author of the legislation, Edmund Witter, the managing attorney for the King County Bar Association's Housing Justice Project, felt this was a reasonable outcome, saying “as somebody who represents tenants, who sees a lot of things, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if a landlord is serving that notice and sort of telling the tenant, look you're behind on your rent and you could be evicted potentially, but it has some remedies once we get to that if it gets really far into the red. I don't think it's a bad thing for landlords to sort of push on it.”
While service of a notice to ‘pay or vacate’ may not be an ideal starting point, it does provide advantages to tenants who lack resources to pay rent. First, many nonprofit service providers require a notice to pay or vacate when they consider whether to provide financial assistance to renters experiencing financial hardship. Second, tenants who are unable to pay rent benefit from receiving notice as soon as possible so they can work with community resources to make their payment.
The industry is working to address housing affordability in Washington state to provide relief to renters, all the while creating opportunities for landlords to improve their rental properties while preserving affordability and creating new housing opportunities of all types across Washington state.
We crafted reforms to the “Pay or Vacate” process that worked for tenants and protected the business interests of landlords, including a State fund which assists tenants in paying rent to remain in housing. We advocated and pursued extending the notice period to terminate a tenancy and passed a law that requires 120 days’ notice when the owner of a rental property intends to demolish, substantially renovate, or change the use of a rental property. We pursued legislation that required information of tenant rights be provided when notice to pay or vacate is delivered. It’s unfortunate that tenant advocates are painting our good faith efforts in a negative light.
We must take a holistic approach to Washington’s housing affordability issues to create meaningful solutions that make real progress in addressing the problem. This includes a comprehensive approach to maintain the existing affordable housing we have and creating more affordable housing for generations to come.