State House Advances Bill Providing 'Just Cause' Protection for Renters


The Washington state House of Representatives has passed a bill that requires landlords to state a reason when terminating or refusing to renew a rental agreement.

Known as "just cause" protection, it's part of a slate of bills aimed at staving off a predicted wave of evictions following the expiration of Gov. Inslee's eviction moratorium on March 31.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle), closes a loophole that advocates have for years said leaves landlords with unlimited discretion to end tenancies, allowing for retaliation and discrimination against tenants.

"We can't go back to a system when renters can easily be forced into homelessness through no fault of their own," Macri said.

Under Washington's current landlord-tenant law, a landlord can terminate a month-to-month lease at any time, without providing a reason, by issuing a 20-day notice to vacate. While termination is different from eviction, if tenants do not comply with the notice within 20 days, they can then legally be evicted.

Macri's bill, which passed by a 54-44 vote largely along party lines, specifies legitimate causes for eviction or termination of tenancy, including nonpayment of rent, unlawful activity, sexual harassment, if the tenant lied on the application, or if the landlord or a family member intends to occupy the unit.

An amendment from Rep. Strom Peterson on the House floor allowed an exception for fixed-term leases of between three and 12 months, which gives landlords the option of terminating without cause at the end of the term by providing 60 days written notice. If that option is not exercised, the tenancy becomes periodic, and any termination would have to be for the enumerated causes.

With more than $350 million in federal and state rental assistance being distributed statewide, Macri said that eliminating 20-day notices is necessary to ensure that the relief money accomplishes its intended purpose: keeping people in their homes.

"That would mean our rental assistance program would result in making landlords whole financially but not providing housing stability for tenants," Macri said about not passing the bill.

House Republicans proposed 25 amendments, most of which failed, in a debate that spilled over into Sunday morning and frequently strayed into unrelated topics such as gang violence and drug addiction. Several Republicans lawmakers objected to the notion of shifting the burden of proof for eviction onto landlords, which they called an erosion of contract and property rights.

One Republican amendment succeeded in reducing the financial penalty for landlords who remove a tenant in violation of the bill.

Several cities in Washington already have legislation that requires just cause for landlords to terminate leases, including Burien, Federal Way, and Seattle, which passed its ordinance in 1980. The states of California, New Jersey, and New Hampshire also have statewide just-cause laws, and Oregon's law protects tenants who've been in their unit for longer than one year from having their leases terminated without cause.

Bills to permanently address no-cause terminations were introduced in the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, but failed to advance. The 2021 bill will now go to the state Senate for consideration.