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10 Seattle renters’ rights your landlord doesn’t want you to know

Here’s what to be aware of before you sign your lease

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Slightly less than half of Seattle’s residents rent their homes, whether they live in luxury penthouses, two-story houses, or 200-square-foot micro units. But no matter who you are or what type of space you’re renting, all tenants are entitled to live somewhere safe, secure, and clean.

There are plenty of laws in place to ensure your rental meets these standards, and all of them can be found in the Seattle Municipal Code and Washington’s state law. Seattle also recently launched Renting in Seattle, an extremely comprehensive online database detailing some of the key rules and best practices when it comes to renting in the city. If you need extra assistance, try the city’s helpline: 206-684-5700.

We’ve saved you from having to go through all of the laws and codes, and put some of the most important—and yet often overlooked—rules below.

1. You can—and should—stand up for your rights.

Tim Thomas, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who researches neighborhood change and housing inequality, says there is not a lot of oversight when it comes to making sure your landlord is doing everything properly. “If you don’t raise it yourself, the issue won’t be solved because a lot of the stuff falls through the cracks,” he says.

Depending on the severity of the situation that could mean simply calling and sending a written note to your landlord explaining the problem (you should always do both). It could also mean getting a lawyer involved (the Housing Justice Project or the Northwest Justice Project are both good options if you need assistance paying for legal services). But it’s up to you to recognize that there’s an issue and kickstart the process of getting it fixed.

2. If a rule isn’t in your lease, it’s unenforceable.

In general, it’s against the law for landlords to enforce rules that are not included in your lease, and they can only make changes to the lease if you agree to them. Take a close look at your lease and any proposed changes before signing anything at any point in your tenancy. Mark Chattin, an adjunct professor at Seattle University School of Law, recommends making sure everything looks standard. “Weird stuff that gets in there, that always gives me a little bit of a concern,” he says. For example, if your lease says anything about you waving your rights to any of Seattle’s renter protection ordinances, like Just Cause Eviction, that should be a red flag (see below for more on Just Cause Eviction).

3. Seattle tenants can’t be evicted without proper cause.

Renters with a month-to-month lease or verbal lease agreement are protected by the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance, which requires that a landlord or property manager provide a city-approved reason for ending a lease. Some examples include: failing to pay rent or refusing to comply with the lease agreements. For example, if you agreed to adhere to certain quiet hours every night, but you still regularly blast your music at 2 a.m. (There are eighteen total approved reasons a landlord could end a lease.) Dulcie O’Sullivan, head of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections’ Renting in Seattle program, writes in an email that he considers this the most overlooked tenant’s right in Seattle. “It is the gold standard of tenant protections and the one ordinance that prevents arbitrary evictions,” he says.

4. Your landlord needs to give you at least 60 days’ notice to raise your rent more than 10 percent.

That’s twice as much time as was previously required. The change was made by lawmakers during the 2019 state legislative session and will surely have an important impact on residents, given how common rental increases have become.

5. Your landlord needs to give you at least 14 days’ notice to evict you for nonpayment.

Lawmakers also recently approved legislation that more than quadruples the amount of notice landlords must give tenants before they can start the official eviction process for renters who have overdue rent.

If your landlord wants to kick you out because of overdue rent, they must give you at least 14 days to either pay or vacate, and also provide you with detailed information about how much you owe and why. They also must provide you with information on accessing low-cost legal help through the Attorney General’s office.

6. If you’re forced to move—but can’t afford it—help is out there.

If you’re a low-income resident in Seattle, you may be able to get some funds to help offset relocation costs if you’re being forced to move for reasons beyond your control.

Those living somewhere that’s set to be “demolished, substantially rehabilitated, changed in use, or [no longer part of the assisted housing program]” could be eligible to receive $2,000 from the city, according to the Seattle Municipal Code. There are a lot of restrictions tied to this assistance, but if you think you might be eligible, it would be worth taking a look at the code.

7. There are plenty of rules in place to make sure your landlord keeps up with repairs.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s up to you to promptly request the repair. But once you do, there are firm deadlines in Seattle for how long your landlord can take to fix the problem. If, for example, the malfunction has resulted in you not having water, electricity or, during the winter, heat, then the landlord has to make the fix within 24 hours. But if it’s a matter of a malfunctioning stove or bathroom plumbing issue, they can take up to 72 hours. Your landlord also can’t raise your rent until they fix any serious housing code violations in your building, such as rodent or roach infestations.

8. Unless there’s an emergency, a landlord can’t enter your unit without both getting your permission and giving you notice.

The amount of notice they’re required to give you will depend on why they want to enter the unit. If you’re planning to move out and the landlord wants to show the space, they only have to give you 24 hours’ notice. But if it’s a matter of repairs or inspections, they have to give you 48 hours.

9. Landlords have a strict timeline for giving deposits back.

When it’s time to move out, your landlord only has 21 days to return your deposit. If they’re not going to return your full deposit because of, say, damages to the apartment, they must also provide an explanation about why they’ve withheld certain funds.

10. Your landlord can’t retaliate against you for bringing up your rights.

If you assert your rights as a renter by requesting a repair or complaining about your landlord entering your unit without your permission, your landlord can’t retaliate by doing something like raising your rent. If they do, Seattle has a variety of resources that help protect tenants against this type of treatment. The city recommends contacting the Seattle Office for Civil Rights if you have questions or are interested in filing a complaint.