The following article is meant to be read in conjunction with our comprehensive guide to evicting a tenant in Washington State. If you have not read it, we highly recommend you read the relevant sections of that guide first so that you can see where the following information fits in.
How do Seattle’s eviction laws differ from statewide eviction laws?
As a very liberal city, Seattle is more protective of tenants (and therefore less friendly to landlords) than other municipalities in Washington. Therefore, Seattle has added a number of tenant protections over and above those provided by Washington’s baseline statewide eviction laws. These additional laws can make it more difficult, risky, and costly for a landlord to evict a tenant in Seattle than elsewhere in Washington.
Specifically, Seattle landlords (only landlords within Seattle!) need to pay attention to the following three tenant protections that are unique to Seattle:
- Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance
- Just Cause Eviction Ordinance
- Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance
Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance
Under what circumstances does the ordinance apply? The Seattle Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (SMC 22.214) applies to nearly all month-to-month or year-to-year residential units. Exceptions exclude certain short-term rentals (e.g. hotels, motels, etc.), and odd-ball situations (e.g. emergencies, and government-operated units) from this rule. A full list of exceptions can be found at SMC 22.214.030.
When the ordinance applies, what effect does it have? If your property is subject to Seattle’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, you are required to register your property with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections every five years, and have it inspected every ten years. If you fail to do so, you will not be able to evict that tenant until you have registered the unit.
“Just Cause” Eviction Ordinance
Under what circumstances does the ordinance apply? Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance (SMC 22.206.160(C)) applies to nearly all residential units when a landlord would otherwise use a 20-day notice to vacate to force out a month-to-month tenant so that the landlord can demolish the unit, change the unit’s use, or substantially rehabilitate it.. Thus, this ordinance usually only affects the eviction process for periodic tenants (e.g. month-to-month or week-to-week tenants) who have done nothing wrong to deserve an eviction (i.e. no late rent; no non-compliance; no waste/nuisance; and no criminal acts).
When the ordinance applies, what effect does it have? Long story short: Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance makes it impossible to use a 20-day notice to terminate the tenancy in order to demolish the unit, change the unit’s use, or substantially rehabilitate it, and instead forces landlords to go through the much more costly and time-consuming Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance process (discussed below).
How does this work? Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance is designed to make it more difficult to evict tenants when the landlord doesn’t have a “just cause” for doing so. Fortunately, most of the normal reasons to evict a tenant under Washington State law also constitute “just cause” to evict a tenant under Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance. Thus, Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance doesn’t change the process when you want to evict a tenant for most of the normal reasons allowed by state law (e.g.non-payment of rent, non-compliance with a rule, commission of waste/nuisance, or for criminal acts).
However, if you’d like to evict a periodic tenant so that you can demolish the unit, change the unit’s use, or substantially rehabilitate it, then Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance requires the landlord to obtain a tenant relocation license under the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance (discussed below) and delay the eviction until after the landlord has received at least one permit related to the improvements. See SMC 22.206.160(C)(1)(h-i). As you can read below, the steps involved in complying with the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance are very onerous.
The 20-day notice to terminate the tenancy is not entirely dead in Seattle–it’s just severely limited. You can still use a 20-day notice to terminate the tenancy for a narrow set of reasons, including the following:
- The owner wants to re-rent the unit to an immediate family member. SMC 22.206.160(C)(1)(e).
- The unit is a single-family home that the owner is trying to sell. SMC 22.206.160(C)(1)(f).
- The tenant’s occupancy is conditioned upon employment on the property and the employment relationship is terminated. SMC 22.206.160(C)(1)(g).
A full list of exceptions can be found at SMC 22.206.160(C)(1).
Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance
Under what circumstances does the ordinance apply? Because of Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance discussed above, Seattle’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance (SMC 22.210) applies to nearly all residential units when a landlord would otherwise use a 20-day notice to vacate to force out a month-to-month tenant so that the landlord can demolish the unit, change the unit’s use, or substantially rehabilitate it.
Another part of this ordinance kicks in if the soon-to-be-demolished units qualify as “low-income residential units.” The ordinance defines “low-income residential units” by rent threshold; if your rent is lower than this threshold (and your property is not otherwise excluded from the ordinance) then you must provide your tenants with various information, and possibly also financial assistance to help them relocate (explained below).
If the combined annual income of a unit’s residents falls below the following thresholds (using Seattle’s 2017 numbers), then the tenants qualify as low-income:
- Studio: $33,600/yr
- 1 Bedroom: $38,400/yr
- 2 Bedroom: $43,200/yr
- 3 Bedroom: $48,000/yr
- 4 Bedroom: $51,850/yr
- 5 Bedroom: $55,700/yr
There are some narrow exceptions to this rule, including government-owned units, school-owned units, mobile homes, and rental units that will be converted to condominiums from this rule. A full list of exceptions can be found at SMC 22.210.040.
When the ordinance applies, what effect does it have? The stated policy goal of Seattle’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance is to make sure that low-income tenants have enough money to relocate when a landlord forces the tenant to move out. The side-effect of this ordinance is that it makes it far costlier and more inefficient for a landlord to kick out a current tenant, renovate the unit, and re-rent it at top-of-the-market prices.
Here’s an overview of the process to kick out a tenant under the ordinance (as of July 2018): If your property is subject to the ordinance, you must first apply for a tenant relocation license from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections. Once you have received your tenant relocation license, you must supply each effected tenant with a tenant relocation information packet. Tenants can then apply for relocation assistance based on their income. If they are eligible, you (the landlord) will be responsible to pay 50% of the tenant relocation assistance money. You should expect to pay about $3,000 per relocation on average, but this amount will vary depending on a variety of factors.
But the headache for the landlord doesn’t end there. Instead of the normal 20-day notice to vacate required under state law for “no fault” evictions, Seattle’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance requires in excess of 100 days’ notice.
How does this add up? First, landlords must go through the process described above, which normally takes about two months—but potentially more if either the landlord or tenant appeals the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections’ decision regarding relocation assistance. After the landlord has paid his or her share of the tenant relocation assistance (if any), he must wait at least ten days before issuing a 90-day notice to vacate per SMC 22.210.120.
If you fail to comply with this ordinance, you will not receive planning approval to perform the demolition or renovation you’re planning.
Clever landlords may be thinking, I know, I’ll just raise the rents so that all the tenants are forced to move out and then apply for my permits afterwards! But Seattle officials are one step ahead. Landlords are not allowed to raise the rent to force tenants out instead of complying with Seattle’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance. The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections has authority (per SMC 22.210.136) to investigate rent increases to determine whether the intent of the increase is to avoid the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance. Violations of this ordinance are subject to fines and penalties of up to $1,000.00 per day.
Legally speaking, how is it that Seattle’s eviction laws differ from those in the rest of the state?
Understanding the answer to this question requires come background information about how laws work in the United States. Here’s a quick diagram:
The federal constitution and certain other federal statutes offer a baseline set of laws that operate as a common legal foundation for every state in the country. Each state is free to build on this federal foundation by enacting its own set of laws—as long as the state’s laws don’t conflict with the foundational federal laws. Likewise, county laws build on state laws, and city laws build on county laws. Each level of government is (generally) free to add more laws on top of the foundational laws below it, but it cannot contradict or undermine those foundational laws. This is the general structure of the American legal system in every jurisdiction.
Thus, in the above diagram, Tacomans have to abide by Tacoma’s laws, Pierce County’s laws, Washington State’s laws, and Federal laws. Likewise, Seattleites must abide by Seattle’s laws, King County’s laws, Washington’s laws, and Federal laws. However, Seattleites don’t have to abide by Tacoma or Pierce County laws, and Tacomans don’t have to abide by Seattle or King County laws.
Washington state law prescribes a certain eviction procedure (which we’ve covered in our comprehensive guide to evicting a tenant in Washington State). However, the counties and cities within Washington can build on top of this baseline eviction procedure at their discretion. Most jurisdictions within Washington have not decided to add to the statewide baseline eviction procedure. However, the City of Seattle has chosen to add a number of tenant protections. That is why Seattle’s eviction laws differ slightly from statewide eviction laws that control throughout most of the rest of the state.
Please note that this article is only intended to cover the difference between Seattle eviction laws and Washington state eviction laws; this article does not cover all of the differences between Seattle landlord-tenant law and Washington landlord-tenant law. For a (fairly) comprehensive primer on that topic, check out this great guide for tenants issued by the City of Seattle.
Contact a Seattle Landlord-Tenant Attorney Today
If you have questions about your landlord-tenant issue, or any other matter related to Washington real estate law, you should speak to an attorney as soon as you can. To schedule a consultation, call the Brink Law Firm today at 253.620.6666 or send us an email through our online contact form.