Washington’s New Landlord-Tenant Statute[1]

By John Weaver.  

Reasons, Reasons, we don’t have to tell
you no stinking reasons —
Oh, yes, you do.

You’re at a party when a friend comes up and says:

“My kid just got a notice from his landlord that says he has to move out in twenty days.”

You ask, “Is he up to date on rent, has he done anything wrong?”

“Nope, the landlord just wants him to move.”

You think back to law school and what you studied for the Bar. You haven’t thought about Landlord-Tenant Law since you bought your own place and began paying the bank and not your landlord.

“Is he in Seattle?” You know they have some weird laws up there.[2]

“Nope, out in Spokane. What can you tell me to tell him?”

Unless you represent lessors, or have volunteered with a housing-justice-type project, or keep close track of the legislature, you’re likely to give the wrong answer. You probably weren’t paying much attention to Landlord-Tenant Law except for the Covid-caused moratorium.

But, effective May 10th of last year, Washington joined California, Oregon and New Jersey as states with statewide “just cause”[3] eviction statutes. We have a new regime for residential tenancies statewide.[4]

You need to read the statute which is found at RCWA 59.18.650. It’s pretty opaque, even for statutory law, and it’s possible that by the time you read this or shortly afterwards, there may be some changes made to it.

My purpose in writing this article isn’t to give you a full understanding of the act, but simply to alert you to the fact that it’s there and give you a brief (and incomplete) summary of its provisions.

YOU REALLY HAVE TO READ THE ENTIRE STATUTE

The provisions on “just cause” begin simply enough:

A lessor[5] may not evict a tenant, refuse to continue a tenancy, or end a periodic tenancy except for the causes enumerated in subsection (2) of this section and as otherwise provided in this subsection.

The “otherwise provided,” situation is basically that a lessor has to give 60 days’ notice to be sure that a tenant on a fixed term lease of at least six months to a year has to move out at the end of the term. It’s a little more complex than that, but that’s the short version.[6]

Where the “otherwise provided” isn’t operative, there is a list of causes that will allow a lessor to terminate a tenancy or refuse to renew a periodic tenancy. Depending on the causes the tenant may have as many as 120 days to find a new place. Very briefly, the causes are:

  • Not paying rent—the lessor can give a 14-day vacate or pay notice.
  • Lease violation. The lessor can give a 10-day comply or vacate notice.
  • Repeated lease violations. A tenant who has gotten four 10-day comply notices (see above) in 12 months can be terminated on 60 days notice.
  • Crime or nuisance. Lessor can give a 3-day notice to quit to tenant who has committed a crime or interfered with other tenants’ use and enjoyment.
  • Sexual harassment or other harassment of the lessor, a tenant or property manager.[7]
  • Condemnation of the rental facility.
    Remaining after the lease has ended without signing a new
  • “reasonable“ agreement.
  • False application. Lying on the rental application about something important.
  • Sex offender having to register or failing to tell the lessor they have to register.
  • Lessor needs place for self or family
  • Lessor is selling. This applies to single-family residences
  • Renovations
  • Condo Conversion

There are special provisions for tenants who share a dwelling unit, kitchen or bathroom (think of a boarding house), for people in transitional housing, for people in subsidized housing, and for people who were not on the lease after the tenant who signed the lease has moved out.

YOU REALLY HAVE TO READ THE ENTIRE STATUTE

The new provisions need to be read in conjunction with the general Unlawful Detainer Statute (which itself was amended in 2019 to add a number of protections for residential tenants).

A tenant need have no cause to terminate a periodic tenancy and can terminate it on 20 days notice. For a term tenancy where the lessor would have to give 60 days notice the tenant can simply move out at the end of the term. There are special provisions for tenants in the military terminating term leases.

It may well be that changes to the ‘for cause’ regime will be enacted during the current legislative term.[8]

If you have lessor clients, be sure to tell them not to try to avoid the act. The penalty is severe— the greater of their economic and noneconomic damages or three times the monthly rent of the dwelling at issue, and reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs.

This article contains less than a 1,000 words; the section of the statute that deals most with this new regime contains over 2,500 words. So you can see that I only intended to alert you to the changes and not to make you an expert. I conclude with my third alert:

YOU REALLY HAVE TO READ THE ENTIRE STATUTE

 

John Weaver is a retired professor of law from Seattle University School of Law. He began teaching at UPS School of Law in 1972. He is a resident of Tacoma and serves as the law school liaison to the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association.

 

 

[1] This article is intended to alert you a change in the law. It should not be relied on. As we tell you—You Really Have to Read the Entire Statute.
[2] Seattle, and a number of other communities up north have adopted a variety of “tenant protective measures”.
[3] There are other possible names for this sort of regime, but “just cause” seems to be one that most jurisdictions have settled on. There is no uniformity among these statutes, but they might be consulted for some purposes.
[4] As noted, Seattle and other cities have “just cause” ordinances.
[5] You may have noted that I switched from “landlord” to lessor. Even though statute is referred to as the residential landlord-tenant act, it uses “lessor” to refer to a person other than the tenant.
[6] It’s a little more complicated than that. The first form of the statute was simple, but provisions were added, among others, to deal with the Covid moratorium.
[7] The statute first says sexual harassment, but then goes on to mention other protect- ed statuses.
[8] As of this writing there is a bill to require lessors to give three months’ notice of rent increases of more than 3%.