Today King County Superior Court Judge Johanna Bender issued a ruling almost entirely upholding three tenant protection ordinances passed by the City Council last year.
The Rental Housing Association of Washington filed a lawsuit last September challenging three ordinances:
- The “winter eviction ban” that prohibits evictions between December 1 and March 1;
- The ban on evictions for anyone asserting a “financial hardship” until six months after the end of the COVID-19 emergency;
- A regulation requiring landlords to accept payments plans for back rent, and prohibits landlords from charging late fees, interest and other charges arising from late payment of rent during the COVID emergency or within one year after its termination.
The plaintiff asserted seven separate legal bases for finding some or all of the ordinances illegal:
- They conflict with and/or are preempted by two state ordinances, the Residential Landlord Tenant Act and the Unlawful Detainer Act;
- The violate the separation of powers by interfering with judicial processes;
- They violate procedural due process guarantees by denying landlords access to eviction procedures;
- They violate substantive due process guarantees because the passing of the ordinances was arbitrary and capricious;
- They violate the “privileges and immunities” clause of the state Constitution (the equivalent of the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution) by giving preferential treatment under the law to tenants;
- They violate the federal and state constitutions’ Contract Clauses by impairing terms of leases that guarantee timely rent payment and state the consequences of failure to pay rent;
- They are an unconstitutional “taking” of property by denying landlords physical access to their property.
Both sides separately filed motions for summary judgement, which put the case in the judge’s hands to quickly decide.
The judge rejected all of these arguments, except for one small piece of the first one: she found that state law guaranteed landlords the right to collect interest on late rent payments, so she invalidated that portion of the “payment plan” ordinance but left the rest of it intact.
There were two common themes in the judge’s analysis of the claims. First, as is common with many local and state COVID-related cases, she gave great deference to the legislative and executive branches to decide how best to protect public health. Second, she found that because the ordinances only delayed eviction and rent payment, but did not permanently prevent them, they did not infringe upon the fundamental rights of landlords — at least not beyond reasonable expectations for a business already highly regulated even before the new ordinances were passed. Judge Bender also found that the ordinances could be harmonized with the state laws (except for the interest provision), and therefore were neither preempted nor in conflict; and that the ordinances did not conflict with any process actually created by the judiciary (instead of by law) because they only added new defenses that could be asserted rather than preclude eviction proceedings entirely, so they did not create a separation of powers violation.
The ruling is very deferential to the City Council’s discretion in deciding whether a given regulation is justified, in terms of potential due process infringement, favoring tenants, the reasonableness of the length of delay for evictions and payment of rents, and measures that will protect public health during the COVID pandemic. However, if the plaintiffs choose to appeal, any or all aspects of that deference may be overturned by a panel of Court of Appeals judges. In particular the ban on evictions until six months after the end of the COVID emergency declaration might be looked on skeptically: the ordinance was enacted in May 2020, and if the COVID emergency isn’t lifted before this November ((very likely at this point) then the ordinance will have stopped all evictions for two years. On top of that, the tenants can then use the required payment plan to take up to six months more to pay their back rent. Judge Bender gave no indication in her ruling that she wrestled with whether after some threshold amount of time the delay is no longer “temporary” but has lasting consequences for the landlords; other judges may see it differently.
Both City Attorney Pete Holmes and Council President Lorena Gonzalez issued statements praising today’s ruling.
“Today, the City Attorney’s Office secured a major victory on critical pandemic-related tenant protection bills that I sponsored. Nearly a year ago, I got to work to protect tenants facing the eviction moratorium cliff by sponsoring two bills (Ordinances 126075 & 126081) to establish a COVID-19 eviction defense and provide payment plans for families after the eviction moratoriums end. These new laws provide families increased housing stability, as thousands of Seattle residents are still out of work and may continue to struggle to catch up on owed rent in the future. Thank you to the City Attorney’s Office for their legal work. The City’s legal success means Seattle families will be in a better position to recover economically as our economy begins to improve.”
“In a more perfect world we would have ample federally funded rental voucher assistance to help both tenants and landlords, but in absence of that, the City stepped up to curb evictions during the most dangerous months of the year and to help prevent a tidal wave of homelessness as we recover from this pandemic. While some may disagree with the merits of these ordinances, the judge ruled that—with the exception of one word in one of them—the laws are legally sound. Thanks to some great lawyering, there’s a lot of Seattleites who can sleep a bit more soundly in their beds tonight.”
Sean Martin, Executive Director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, also issued a statement this afternoon:
“There would be far fewer affordable homes without small housing providers who, together, provide thousands of affordable units to people who want to live and work in Seattle. Today’s ruling largely leaves in place the latest in a growing number of counterproductive laws that will continue to push small housing providers out of Seattle, reduce the number of rental homes, and drive up costs for renters. We appreciate the hard work and attention the Judge gave the case and for confirming that rent and interest are owed to housing providers. We will review the ruling in-depth and decide on our next course of action.”
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