Auburn considers law to help protect tenants from eviction

Ordinance would give the city more enforcement power when governor’s eviction moratorium ends.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s temporary moratorium on residential tenant evictions during the pandemic is set to expire on Aug. 1, though he could extend it, even at the last moment.

For too many tenants who have lost their jobs to COVID-19 or are working reduced hours for slimmer paychecks that are no longer cutting it, that expiration date is a sword swinging above their heads.

To help such tenants, the Auburn City Council on Monday, July 13, took up a potential ordinance that would spell out, in a proposed new chapter of the city code, precisely under what conditions a landlord can evict a tenant.

Although unfair, retaliatory, tenant evictions are already illegal under Washington state law, Community Development Director Jeff Tate told the council that so-called Just Cause Eviction Ordinances (JCEOs), like the one under consideration, can provide a city some enforcement power.

Any evictions or terminations of tenancy outside those specified by the ordinance are considered illegal once the JCEO is in effect.

Other cities in Washington state, among them Seattle, Burien and Federal Way, have adopted JCEOs. After research, Auburn chose Burien’s JCEO as a model for its draft ordinance

Auburn city staff presented an overview of JCEO concepts during study session discussions on July 18, 2018, and again on April 22, 2019, part of more robust presentations related to various tenant protection programs in place throughout the region.

In addition to establishing codified reasons for why a landlord may evict a tenant, Tate said, a JCEO establishes local requirements for the notification time frames that a landlord must abide by when increasing rental rates.

Under state law, a landlord must provide a minimum of 60 days notice that rental rates are increasing, irrespective of how much the landlord intends to increase rent. A JCEO can establish longer notification timeframes for more significant rent increases by setting a percentage increase threshold and a longer timeframe.

The draft ordinance proposes to establish a 120-day notification requirement when the rent will increase by more than 5 percent. That’s important because the tenant may not be able to afford the increase, which means the tenant will need to find a new housing option.

Finding a new housing option, Tate said, will require the tenant to secure funds associated with the cost of moving, to make a security deposit for the new home, and make first and last month’s rent. When combined with potential other costs associated with setting up new utility accounts, changing school districts, finding new child care, etc., it is difficult for the tenant to be prepared to move to a new home with a 60-day notification.

Five percent is kind of a midpoint, Tate said, adding the increase could be 3, 5 or 7 percent. Using the average or the median rental rate, 3 percent would translate to a $50-a-month increase, 5 percent would add $85 to the monthly rent, and 7 percent would add $120 a month.

Additionally, Tate said, the 120-day time frame is a midpoint as well. It could potentially be 90 days or it could be 150 or 180 days.

“We wanted to call that out because we don’t want to tie the hands of a landlord to increase rent to a level they need to increase it by. But if a tenant needs to make different living arrangements, 60 days is a tough time to raise the amount of money for a deposit,” Tate said.

Another advantage of a JCEO, Tate continued, is that it allows a city to help tenants and landlords in areas where it currently has no authority. While the landlord tenant laws are well established and are intended to protect both parties, the city does not have authority to enforce these laws. Enforcement is remedied through the courts. A JCEO provides the city with a tool to assist in some areas of landlord tenant relations

Other reasons for the preparation of the JCEO for Council consideration at this time are:

• The city council has previously expressed interest in adopting a JCEO in Auburn.

• It is a policy action that is consistent with the recommendations contained in the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force 5 Year Action Plan;

• It is a policy action that is consistent with the Joint Recommendations Committee for the 2020 State Legislative Agenda, of which Auburn is a member;

• It is a policy action consistent with the South King Housing and Homelessness Partners (SKHHP).