Since 1946, the attorneys with Althauser Rayan Abbarno have helped clients navigate complex legal issues involving property, real estate and landlord-tenant issues. The law regulating residential tenancies, the Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA), has seen major changes the past several years, but none more impactful than the changes passed by legislature in the 2021 legislative session. Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5160 into law in April, overhauling landlord/tenant law and changing the landscape of renting and evictions; especially when the eviction moratorium expires.
The legislature last amended the Residential Landlord Tenant Act in 2019, which changed the definition of “rent,” gave judges more discretion in denying an eviction based on the failure to pay rent, and increased the time a landlord is required to give a tenant to pay unpaid rent.
The next major change occurred on March 18, 2020, not through law, but when Governor Inslee issued Proclamation 20-19. The proclamation prohibited evictions and raising rent. Since then, the Governor has extended the moratorium several times, but the current version will expire on June 30, 2021, because of a provision included in Senate Bill 5160.
Need an attorney? Althauser Rayan Abbarno offer consultations in their Centralia and Olympia offices. Call (360) 736-1301 today.
How does Senate Bill 5160 change the current RLTA?
Landlords are limited in what they can tell other people about a tenant’s failure to pay rent. For unpaid rent between March 1, 2020 and six months following the end of the governor’s eviction moratorium, a landlord may not:
- Report to another prospective landlord that a tenant failed to pay rent or was evicted;
- Take any adverse action based on a prospective tenant’s nonpayment of rent;
- Impose any late fees for a tenant’s nonpayment; or
- Deny, discourage application for, or otherwise make unavailable any rental dwelling unit based on a prospective tenant’s medical history.
A landlord can be sued for violating any of these new rules and can be ordered to pay up to two and one half times the monthly rent to the tenant, in addition to attorney fees and court costs.
Repayment Plans and Mediation.
If a tenant failed to pay rent anytime between March 1, 2020, and six months following expiration of the eviction moratorium or the end of the public health emergency, whichever is later, the landlord must offer tenants a reasonable repayment plan to repay that unpaid rent.
Any repayment plan offered by the landlord must:
- Limit payment amounts to the monthly rent, plus up to one third extra to repay unpaid rent;
- Begin no fewer than 30 days following the day the plan was offered;
- Cover only rent;
- Allow for payment from any sources; and
- Repayment conditions may not be conditioned on:
- The tenant’s compliance with the rental agreement or payment of attorney fees, court costs, or other costs related to litigation,
- The tenant’s application or receipt of government assistance, and
- The tenant’s waiver of rights to unlawful detainer notices.
If the tenant fails to accept the terms of a reasonable repayment plan within 14 days of the offer, or the tenant defaults on the repayment plan, the landlord may start the eviction process, but must follow the requirements of the Eviction Resolution Program (ERP).
The ERP, a pilot program started last year, is a mediation program using “Dispute Resolution Centers” (DRC), to help tenants resolve issues related to a troubled tenancy and pay delinquent rent prior to a landlord seeking eviction. Landlords have the duty to provide notice of the program to tenants before suing to evict for non-payment.
If, after the landlord offers a reasonable repayment plan, and the tenant declines, ignores, or defaults on the plan, the parties enter the ERP process through DRC.
Once a landlord and tenant voluntarily enter into the ERP process, a mediation specialist works with both parties to resolve the payment issues. If resolution cannot be achieved, formal mediation will be offered to the landlord and tenant.
The ERP process can be initiated by either the landlord or the tenant, but the landlord has the responsibility of giving the tenant notice of the program. If the tenant initiates mediation, the landlord is obligated to participate in the process.
There are several new notice and form requirements for both the landlord and tenant that can have significant impacts on the unlawful detainer process. And an unlawful detainer can only be filed and granted after the landlord receives a ‘Certificate of Participation’ from a DRC.
Under the bill as it was passed by the Legislature, landlords were able to apply for reimbursement for unpaid rent from the state if the tenant failed to follow a repayment plan. However, the Governor vetoed that provision. Since that is not part of the law, if a tenant fails to abide by a repayment plan, the Landlord’s only option is to sue for eviction or seek assistance from other programs.
During any unlawful detainer proceeding, the court must consider the tenant’s circumstances, including any decreased income or increased expenses due to COVID-19, and the terms of the payment plan offered by the landlord. The landlord’s circumstances are not equally considered. It is a defense to an unlawful detainer action if the landlord did not offer a reasonable repayment plan.
Right to Representation.
SB 5160 gives tenants who are sued for unlawful detainer the right to be represented by an attorney. The tenant, but not the landlord, has a right to a free attorney appointed by the court and paid for by the Office of Civil Legal Aid if they:
- Receive public assistance;
- Have been involuntarily committed to a public mental health facility;
- Have an income of 125 percent or less of the federal poverty level; or
- Have insufficient available funds to retain counsel.
The RLTA has changed substantially under SB 5160 and this article details only some of those changes. It is important to begin planning for this new process because the mistakes are costly for both the landlord and tenant. Our attorneys are following the changes in the law, and continue to monitor the guidance from the Courts, State Agencies, Dispute Resolution Centers, and the State Office of Civil Legal Aid.
For more information or a consultation with the Attorneys at Althauser Rayan Abbarno in Centralia or Olympia, call (360) 736-1301 or visit www.CentraliaLaw.com.
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