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Intro to Renters' Rights

Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to seattle@curbed.com

Renting can be a nightmare. Problems can mount quickly, especially when landlords are sketchy, requests for urgent repairs are resolved the Tuesday after Never, and the rent really is too damn high.

But there’s good news for renters of the Emerald City yet. Because Seattle is a liberal, peace and love, tree-hugging kind of city, the “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”, middle finger mindset is not particularly popular. And with the housing market in the struggling place that it is right now, renting is becoming more and more popular. Thus, there are some Washington State-specific laws to protect renters that are worth knowing about.

Here’s a Sparknotes version of some of the most important laws renters in Seattle (and anywhere else in Washington State) will want to know so you can occupy your apartment without being unduly screwed by the Man.
Obligations of Landlords

That cockroach-infested, leaky-roofed, third-world reminiscent-apartment that you somehow survived in a different city isn’t considered being in “good condition” here in Seattle. As such, landlords have a responsibility of creating and maintaining a clean and habitable space for humans to live in, which includes pest control, providing heat and keeping daytime temperatures at 65 degrees F or above and nighttime temperatures above 58 degrees F, serious structural repairs, preventing weather (chiefly rain water) from leaking into the unit, and the like. Long story short, keep your landlords honest so that you don’t have to feel like you’re living every day in Noah’s Ark.

Rent (and other cost) Increases

Unlike renter-heavy cities like Los Angeles or New York, Seattle doesn’t have rent control. But that doesn’t mean that Seattleites are living powerlessly in a feudal system in which landlords can arbitrarily demand you fork out some extra money that you have to pay by sundown...or else. While they’re perfectly within their rights to hike up prices, landlords are required to give tenants a 60 day notice in writing if they want to increase the rent by more than 10 percent in a 12 month span. And if they don’t follow these regulations, steam your pant suit and give Judge Judy a ring because your renter rights have been violated and you have every right to fight it in court.

Month-to-Month Renters

If you’re renting month-to-month, don’t feel like you’re out of the rent-law-love loop. In fact, here’s a few doozies made just for you. As a month-to-month renter, you are within your rights to rent that apartment for just one month and move out, no questions asked. Landlords are not permitted to require month-to-month renters to commit to a minimum rental term. (But if they do so, landlords must offer a lease agreement in writing that is to be approved by both parties.)
In many states, landlords can just give month-to-month renters short notice, say, “sorry I’m not sorry, see you never,” and kick you to the curb. But under the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance, landlords in Seattle must provide tenants with both a minimum 20-day notice and a just cause to terminate the tenancy which can include
- a tenant’s failure to pay rent within three days of a notice to pay rent or vacate
- the owner notifying a tenant in writing of overdue rent for at least four times in a 12-month period
- a tenant causing serious damage to the rental unit or engages in criminal activity on the surrounding premises, and (but certainly not limited to)
- a landlord wanting to move him or any members of his immediate family into the unit, if there are no other units available in the same building.

Conversion to Condos

In recent years, more and more building owners across Seattle have opted to convert their apartments into luxury condos. But again, remember the peace and love, man – you’re not going to get kicked out (yet). Management has to provide you with a written notice of the pending condo conversion at least 120 days before you have to move out. If you feel wronged by your landlords for committing real estate adultery – trading in your lovable apartment for a younger, sexier piece of real estate – don’t feel like you have to stick around. Depending on your gross income and the area’s median income, you’re eligible for a nice little settlement package that includes up to three months rent to assist you in relocating. Similarly, if your building is being converted into a co-op and you decide not to buy your unit, you’re entitled to $500 for relocation assistance.

That’s enough schooling today, class. Keep these Sparknotes handy for the next time you or a loved one decides to brave the renting world.