Just-Passed Eviction Reform Bill May Help Some Seattleites Stay off the Streets

The new legislation makes several statewide reforms

By Erica C. Barnett

Subject: The Washington state capitol building exterior, it houses the State Senate, House of Representatives, the office of the Governor. Located in Olympia, Washington. Photographed in horizontal format.

May 6, 2019

Last month, the Washington state legislature passed a sweeping eviction reform bill that gives tenants more time to pay rent before they can be evicted; gives judges new discretion when deciding whether to give tenants more time to pay or how much to penalize evicted tenants financially; and creates new financial incentives for landlords to rent to tenants using financial subsidies.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Macri, was a response to the problems outlined in a report by the Seattle Women’s Commission, “Losing Home,” earlier this year. That report revealed that tenants in Seattle are frequently evicted for failing to pay extremely small amounts of rent (as little as a few dollars), and that the county superior court judges—who determine whether tenants will be evicted—have little discretion to consider mitigating factors (like a one-time medical emergency) that cause people to fall temporarily behind on their rent. In a story about King County’s eviction court for the February 2019 print edition of Seattle magazine, one woman described receiving an eviction notice while in the hospital for late-stage kidney disease. Another case, described by Housing Justice Project attorney Edmund Witter, involved a man who was hospitalized for a degenerative spinal disease; the landlord refused to allow HJP to pay his rent because HJP was not the tenant.

The legislation makes several statewide reforms: 

  • It increases the number of days a tenant has to pay his or her rent once a landlord puts a “pay or vacate” notice on their door from 3 days to 14.
  • It gives judges the ability to consider mitigating circumstances when a tenant falls behind on their rent, such as unanticipated one-time expenses, a history of timely payments, and hardship to the tenant if they’re evicted. This provision also allows tenants to negotiate payment plans with landlords.
  • It requires landlords to put any payments a tenant does make toward rent first, rather than toward fees the landlord has charged the tenant for paying late. The “Losing Home” report found that late fees often added hundreds of dollars to tenants’ arrears, often outstripping the original amount they owed.
  • It limits the amount of attorneys’ fees judges can award to landlords, which were previously unlimited.
  • It expands an existing program that reimburses landlords for damages caused by tenants using rent subsidies. If a judge uses his or her new discretion to forgive rent or give a tenant more time to pay, and the reason is that the tenant is low-income or experiencing hardship, a landlord can now petition the Department of Commerce for reimbursement for that loss.
  • And it requires that 14-day eviction notices be written in simple language (and offered online in 10 different languages) so that tenants understand what is happening and how to respond. 

The legislation is now on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk, and will become law (if Inslee doesn’t get around to signing it) on May 28; then it goes into effect on July 28.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since original publication.

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