[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a Letter to the Editor, submitted by a verified resident. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of South King Media, nor its staff:]
Burien City Council should stand firm on renter protections.
On Monday, February 13th, the Burien City Council will consider a proposal to roll back one of the vital tenant protections they passed in October, 2022.
The councilmembers should vote no, and leave the existing law in place.
I am a Burien resident and a social worker with the Housing Justice Project of the King County Bar Association. Last year, my coworkers and I stood with Burien renters, community supporters, and members of the Stay Housed Stay Healthy coalition to urge the city council to pass an important set of tenant protections. Why? Because every day, we see first hand what happens when renters are left precarious and powerless. Families are displaced from their communities by triple digit rent increases, or face eviction for no good reason, lose their homes and too often fall into homelessness.
The specific provision in question extends Just Cause Eviction protections to tenants on fixed term leases. This is especially important as a protection against retaliation by irresponsible landlords. Unfortunately, some landlords refuse requests for repairs or otherwise break the law. When a tenant attempts to assert her rights, one way a landlord may retaliate is to refuse to renew her lease. Thanks to the protections passed by the Burien City Council, that’s no longer so easy. A landlord must have a good reason to force a tenant out when a lease ends.
We know Burien’s tenant protections are effective because they are actively and successfully being used by attorneys at the Housing Justice Project to defend vulnerable tenants from losing their homes. So why would the Burien City Council consider striking this provision? Unfortunately, some of the council members are under the mistaken impression that it is in conflict with state law.
Last summer, the Washington Court of Appeals heard a lawsuit that was brought against a Just Cause Eviction law that Burien passed in 2019. The court’s decision stated that “BMC 5.63.070(1) [Burien’s law] is preempted to the extent that it conflicts with [state statute] RCW 59.12.030(1) and (2).” The council is now considering the possibility that the new language, explicitly extending Just Cause protections to fixed term leases, conflicts with this state statute. They needn’t worry, for two big reasons.
First, the Court of Appeals decision is unpublished and therefore legally non-binding. That helps to explain why it’s not actually interfering with the successful use of Burien’s law in court. Attorneys are still referring to the law when defending tenants, and judges are still upholding the law and ruling in the tenants’ favor. (While we can only speculate why the Court of Appeals left its decision unpublished, one possible reason is that they did not feel they had a full grasp of the issues from the briefing and therefore were not confident in their opinion.)
Second, the decision itself is based on a gross misunderstanding of state law. The state statute it refers to applies only to commercial, not to residential tenancies. So there is no conflict between Burien’s law covering residential tenant protections and this state law.
In fact, five other jurisdictions in King County – Auburn, Federal Way, Kenmore, unincorporated King County, and Seattle – have similar Just Cause Eviction protections in place that also apply to fixed term leases. If these provisions were actually in conflict with state law, you can bet the landlord lobby groups would have sued to have them overturned.
If this provision is removed from Burien’s law, and our attorneys are no longer able to use it as a defense for renters on fixed term leases, these tenants may well lose their homes and many could become homeless. The Burien City Council should show some backbone and stand by the law they passed last fall.
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