In the last week, three new tenant-rights bills that would limit evictions have been introduced into the Council legislative process: two by Councilmember Sawant, and one jointly by Councilmembers Lewis and Morales.
The first bill, introduced by Sawant, would restrict evictions during the school year for households with children and students, as well as “educators.” It is modeled on a similar San Francisco bill (section 37.9(j) ). But reading the fine print, one discovers that Sawant’s bill is much broader than it first appears. “School,” for example, is defined to include all child care facilities. “Educator” includes all employees and independent contractors of a “school” in Seattle, including custodians and cafeteria workers. This bill would mean that a custodian at a child care facility in Seattle could not be evicted from September to June every year. If the goal of including “educators” is to ensure that students’ education is not disrupted, this bill is an enormous overreach.
Also: whereas the San Francisco ordinance only applies to “no fault” evictions, such as when the landlord wishes to live in the unit or take it off the market entirely, Sawant’s bill is far broader: the only evictions that would be allowed would be some cases where housing laws are being broken, such as exceeding the occupancy limits. For over nine months of the year, a landlord would not be able to evict a covered individual even for failure to pay rent or for violations of terms of the lease.
The bill is the typical kind of rushed drafting and overreach of dubious legality that we frequently see from Sawant’s office as they “go it alone” rather than work with the Council’s central staff, who bring domain expertise but also raise questions on legal issues and overreach. The required “Summary and Fiscal Note,” written by a staff member in Sawant’s office instead of Council central staff, provides essentially no description of what the bill actually does, nor does it mention the impact it will have on the Department of Construction and Inspections, which enforces the city’s “just cause evictions” ordinance.
Sawant has made public statements in the past that she believes all evictions should be prohibited; this bill can be viewed as one more step — a significant one — in her ongoing process of chipping away at the set of evictions that are still allowed, after her successful effort last year to ban “winter evictions.” She will no doubt implore her followers to demand that her colleagues on the Council pass the bill “without watering it down or adding loopholes,” and angrily denounce any efforts by Councilmembers to rein in the overreach as the toadying of “corporate Democrats,” before declaring that whatever version of the bill eventually passes is a victory for “the movement.”
The second and third bills both attempt to close the so-called “end of lease loophole” that allows landlords to evict a tenant at the end of a fixed-term lease if the lease terms do not specify that the lease converts to month-to-month. One is proposed by Sawant, and the other by Lewis and Morales.
Under state law, a month-to-month lease requires that the landlord provide notice to the tenant at least 20 days before the end of the month that the lease is being terminated. But for a fixed-term lease, state law says that it automatically terminates at the end of the term dictated in the lease agreement, without any additional notice requirements. Tenant advocates argue that this allows for circumventing state and local “just cause eviction” laws, as the landlord may refuse to renew the lease for any unstated reason, evict the old tenant, and find a new one that they like better.
Sawant’s bill requires that a landlord must make an offer to renew a fixed-term lease between 60 and 90 days prior to the end of the lease, and allow the tenant 30 days to accept or decline it. The renewal must be on the same terms, other than the duration and financial terms; so, for example, a landlord may not change whether pets are allowed, or whether the tenants are responsible for upkeep and yard work. Under the terms in the bill, a landlord may only refuse to offer a renewal for “just cause” as specified in the city’s Just Cause Evictions ordinance.
Again, the Summary and Fiscal Note for the bill, written by a Sawant staff member, fails to provide a full explanation of what the bill does, and in fact spends more time discussing Federal Way’s similar legislation than it does on the bill it purports to describe. And again, it fails to mention SDCI’s role in enforcing it.
The bill by Lewis and Morales takes a slightly different approach. It states that a fixed-term lease automatically converts to a month-to-month lease unless the tenant is offered and accepts a new fixed-term rental agreement or the landlord has just cause for refusing to renew. Implied in the bill’s language is that if the landlord offers a new fixed-term lease and the tenant refuses it, the lease still becomes month-to-month at the end of the fixed-term period.
Further, it gives the tenant the right to rescind an agreement with the landlord to terminate a tenancy, regardless of whether it was implicit in the termination clause in the lease, or written as a separate agreement. The tenant can rescind it for any reason within ten days after signing the agreement to terminate, or after ten days “by establishing that the tenant entered into the agreement improvidently.” A tenant may demonstrate improvidence as:
- inequality of bargaining power;
- “the tenant’s vulnerability”;
- legitimacy of the landlord’s reason for seeking termination; or
- the tenant’s ability to procure alternative housing.
This means that if a landlord and tenant agree to terminate a tenancy in 30 days, the tenant could rescind the agreement 25 days later if they were unable to find new housing — even if the landlord has already signed up a new tenant. And there is no definition provided for the “vulnerability” of a tenant, or for the “legitimacy” of a landlord’s reason for seeking termination, or how that might be proven outside of the existing “just cause” provisions.
The Summary and Fiscal Note for this bill — this time written by Council central staff — explains none of the details of the ordinance; it simply says “This legislation would amend the City’s Just Cause Eviction provisions to provide protections to tenants regardless of the form or length of their rental agreement.” Though it does note that there will be work for SDCI to both educate landlords and tenants, and enforce the new provisions.
Even if we sympathize with tenants required to move frequently due to expiring fixed-term leases (and we should), the biggest issue with these two bills is that they are probably illegal. Certainly the version from Lewis and Morales, which says that fixed-term leases automatically convert over to month-to-month, is in direct conflict with state law, which says:
In all cases where premises are rented for a specified time, by express or implied contract, the tenancy shall be deemed terminated at the end of such specified time.
Sawant’s bill, which requires landlords to offer a renewal, has the effect of mandating indefinite-length lease agreements masquerading as fixed-length agreements, or at the very least making tenants the sole decision-maker on when a lease terminates. That also probably violates this same provision in state law.
In addition, landlords would probably argue that they are illegal under two constitutional provisions: that they impair contracts, and that they violate fundamental property rights by forcing landlords to permit a tenant to continue occupying their property beyond the limits of an agreement. There has been a lot of shift in how Washington courts interpret both of these issues, so the landlords are far from guaranteed that they would win such arguments.
It would be difficult to reconcile both of these bills with each other, so at most one will likely go forward after the Council debates their merits.
The Council will begin deliberations on these bills Tuesday afternoon in the Sustainability and Renters Rights Committee.
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