The question of whether (and when) to evict a non-paying tenant has always presented challenges for residential landlords in Washington. On the one hand, it makes financial sense to replace a non-paying tenant with a paying one as quickly as possible. On the other hand, there are costs involved in pursuing an eviction, evicting too soon can lead to legal liability, and evicting at all can potentially lead to costly disputes and negative publicity, especially on social media.
On July 27, 2019, modifications to Washington’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (RLTA) took effect that make some significant changes to landlords’ and tenants’ rights in Washington. As its name suggests, the new law, which is codified as RCW § 59.18, applies to residential tenancies only. The laws governing commercial landlord-tenant relationships remain unchanged in RCW § 59.12.
5 Important Changes under the Washington’s Revised Residential Landlord-Tenant Act
While the revised RLTA has several notable implications for residential landlords in Washington, five provisions of the new law are particularly noteworthy:
1. Landlords Must Give 14 Days’ Notice for Failure to Pay Rent
Under the revised RLTA, residential landlords must now give tenants 14 days’ prior written notice before initiating eviction proceedings. This is a substantial increase from the three-day “pay or vacate” notice period under the prior version of the law. All eviction notices must be “in substantially the . . . form” provided in Section 3 of the revised statute, beginning with the following statement:
“FOURTEEN-DAY NOTICE TO PAY RENT OR VACATE THE PREMISES
“You are receiving the attached notice because the landlord alleges that you are not in compliance with the terms of the lease agreement by failing to pay rent and/or utilities and/or recurring or periodic charges that are past due.”
Among other requirements, the notice must also specify the amount(s) owed for rent, utilities, and other charges, and state the total amount that the tenant must pay in order to avoid eviction.
2. Landlords Must Apply Tenant Payments to Past-Due Rent
Previously, landlords were permitted to apply any payments received from delinquent tenants to any amounts that were due and owing under the terms of the lease. This included past-due rent, but it also included charges such as damage repairs, attorneys’ fees, and other expenses. Under the revised RLTA, landlords must now apply tenant payments to rent before applying them to any other amounts due. As stated in the new statutory language:
“A landlord must first apply any payment made by a tenant toward rent before applying any payment toward late payments, damages, legal costs, or other fees, including attorneys’ fees.”
3. Tenants Can Seek Writ of Restitution “Stays” and Up To 90-Day Payment Plans
Once a residential landlord obtains a writ of restitution from the court authorizing a tenant’s eviction due to nonpayment of rent, the tenant now has the option to apply for a stay of execution of the writ. The tenant can submit an application at any time prior to eviction, and the tenant will be entitled to a stay “upon good cause” shown. If the court grants a stay, the tenant will be permitted to continue residing in the premises for up to 90 days (as determined by the court), and the court may also establish a payment plan for the tenant to pay the pasts-due amounts in 90 days or less.
In deciding whether to grant a stay of execution under the revised RLTA, the Washington courts must consider the following factors:
- “The tenant’s willful or intentional default or intentional failure to pay rent;
- “Whether nonpayment of the rent was caused by exigent circumstances that were beyond the tenant’s control and that are not likely to recur;
- “The tenant’s ability to timely pay the judgment;
- “The tenant’s payment history;
- “Whether the tenant is otherwise in substantial compliance with the rental agreement;
- “Hardship on the tenant if evicted; and
- “Conduct related to other notices served within the last six months.”
The sole exception to the tenant’s right to apply for a stay of execution applies in cases in which the tenant has received three or more notices to pay or vacate within the past 12 months.
4. Landlords’ Ability to Recover Attorneys’ Fees for Eviction Proceedings Is Limited
The revised RLTA also places limitations on residential landlords’ ability to recover attorneys’ fees in eviction cases. Landlords are still generally entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees when, “the court has entered a judgment in favor of the landlord restoring possession of the property to the landlord.” However, no attorneys’ fees will be awarded if either:
- The restoration of possession of the property results from a default judgment due to the tenant’s failure to appear; or,
- The total amount of rent awarded is equal to or less than two months of the tenant’s rent or $1,200, whichever is greater.
5. Landlords and Tenants Can Seek Relief under Washington’s Landlord Mitigation Program
The revised RLTA contains several new provisions regarding Washington’s Landlord Mitigation Program. This is a program managed by the Washington Department of Commerce that provides reimbursements for upgrades, rent loss, and qualifying damages incurred in connection with residential rentals to tenants who are receiving state financial assistance. Among other provisions under the revised RLTA, landlords and tenants are now both eligible to apply for program funds. And if a landlord’s application for program funds is denied, the landlord is entitled to file a renewed application for a writ of restitution.
In order to avoid potential liability, residential landlords in Washington must update their leases, policies, and procedures in order to comply with the revised RLTA. We encourage residential landlords in Tacoma and throughout Washington to contact us for more information.
Speak with a Real Estate Lawyer at Bolan Law Group.
If you have questions about landlords’ new obligations under Washington’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act, please contact us to schedule a confidential initial consultation with one of our Tacoma real estate attorneys. To request an appointment at your convenience, please call (253) 470-2356 or send us a message online today.