What Renters Should Know About Tenant Right to Counsel and Eviction Law in Washington

Official legal eviction order or notice to renter or tenant of home with face mask

For more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington renters who have been unable to pay their rent have at least been safe from being evicted. As of this writing, bills for that unpaid rent will come due July 1 for tens of thousands of Washingtonians. However, changes to Washington’s landlord-tenant law have created new protections to help people avoid evictions, mediate disputes with landlords, and guarantee that certain renters have free legal representation.

On April 22, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law Senate Bill 5160. Originally sponsored by state Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the legislation adds a number of tenant protections such as “providing for legal representation in eviction cases, establishing an eviction resolution pilot program for nonpayment of rent cases, and authorizing landlord access to certain rental assistance programs,” according to the final bill report.

Perhaps most significantly, the law makes Washington the first state in the country to create a statewide right to counsel in eviction cases for “indigent” defendants. Similar rights have been implemented at the local level in cities like New York, where a tenant right to counsel law has been credited for a 30 percent decrease in eviction filings since 2013. In Washington, about half of eviction cases end in default judgments for landlords, who have legal representation about 90 percent of the time as compared to about 10 percent of tenants.

A staggering 160,080 renters in Washington were behind on their rent as of late-March, according to the latest U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey. For context, that’s almost as many evictions recorded from 2009 to 2017 combined, according to data from a 2019 University of Washington study.

“We’re setting up a process, or a structure in place, that will withstand this pandemic so tenants will have access to emergency rental assistance going forward when they need it,” Kuderer told NWSidebar, adding that for several years before the pandemic she has been working on issues of housing stability and affordability and identifying shortfalls in the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act. “So we don’t have a situation where landlords are waiting for months on end because there’s nothing for a tenant to access.”

An ongoing moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent, which Inslee first issued last March and extended several times, is set to expire June 30. SB 5160 states that the moratorium “shall end” on June 30, although some observers told NWSidebar there’s nothing that would preclude Inslee from issuing a new moratorium with a later expiration date. Although a federal judge recently vacated the Centers for Disease Control nationwide moratorium on evictions, which is also set to expire on June 30 for properties with federally backed financing.

Washington’s law codifies the state’s Eviction Resolution Program, launched last year in six pilot counties that account for about 80 percent of evictions in the state. The Eviction Resolution Program is intended to divert an expected surge of cases—what many legal observers have called a tsunami of evictions—away from courts and utilize a network of dispute resolution centers and housing justice projects to resolve landlord-tenant disputes out of court, connect tenants with rental assistance funds, and develop payment plans for owed rent.

Tenants who accrued unpaid rent between March 1, 2020, and “six months following the expiration of the eviction moratorium or the end of the public health emergency, whichever is greater,” now have the right to a “reasonable schedule for repayment” that doesn’t exceed one-third of their monthly rent. Before filing an unlawful detainer action for nonpayment of rent, landlords are required to provide a notice to the tenant informing them of:

  • Contact information for the local dispute resolution center;
  • Contact information for a local housing justice project; or, if one isn’t located in their county, a statewide organization providing housing advocacy services for low-income residents;
  • How to find a lawyer or advocate at low or no cost and any available resources to help pay rent.

If a tenant doesn’t respond to the first notice, the landlord is then able to issue a 14-day pay or vacate notice and initiate an eviction.

What to Do If You’re a Renter in Washington Facing an Eviction

If you are behind on rent and received a notice from your landlord or are concerned that you will soon, there are a number of resources available to inform you of your rights and get assistance from a housing advocate or a legal professional.

The new law guarantees a right to counsel for indigent defendants, which is defined as anyone receiving certain types of public assistance or who have an annual post-tax income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($25,760 for an individual as of this writing).

Even if you don’t believe you qualify for free legal representation, you might have other options for help. Start by contacting the Eviction Screening Line at 855-657-8387 or apply using the Northwest Justice Project online application. You might also qualify for representation through the WSBA Moderate Means Program, which provides reduced fees for people whose income falls between 200 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

Washington LawHelp provides myriad resources such as a summary of Washington’s new landlord-tenant law, contact information for housing justice projects throughout the state, and other information about your rights if your landlord threatens you with an eviction.

The Administrative Office of the Courts maintains a list of Washington Dispute Resolution Centers. These centers can provide free conflict coaching to help resolve eviction-related issues, mediate financial disputes, facilitate negotiations between you and your landlord about a payment plan, coordinate rental assistance when available, and refer you to a legal representative.