Problems During Tenancy: The Road to Eviction

The legal term used by the courts in Washington to refer to the eviction process is “unlawful detainer”. This means that if a tenant violates the terms of a lease, the court can make a ruling that the tenant is unlawfully occupying (detaining) the premises and issue an order forcing the tenant to leave.

The eviction process, or unlawful detainer process, can move very fast as compared with other areas of law. A tenant can find themselves evicted in just a few weeks. However, because the eviction process is unusually fast, there are extra protections built into the system for tenants. Most tenants don’t know about these protections, and so most tenants don’t bother going to court to defend themselves.

Before eviction proceedings can start in court, a landlord must give the tenant very specific, written warnings, within very specific time periods, depending on the type of warning issued. These warnings are referred to by the time frame that applies: a three-day warning, a ten-day warning, and a twenty-day warning. If you receive any kind of legal notice from your landlord or an attorney, do not ignore it!

Three day warning for non-payment of rent: If you are even one day behind in your rent, your landlord can start the process to make you move out by serving you with e a “3-day notice to pay or vacate”. If you pay all the rent you owe within three days after you get the notice, the landlord must accept it, and cannot evict you for non-payment of rent. The landlord does not have to accept a partial payment of rent to stop the eviction from going forward.

Three day warning for creating “waste or nuisance”: A tenant is not allowed to:

  • permanently damage or destroy the landlord’s property
  • use the property for certain illegal activity including illegal drug-related activity
  • engage in gang-related activity
  • interfere with other tenants’ use of the property

If you do any of these things, the landlord can give you a 3-day notice to vacate. You must move out within three days after you get this notice or face eviction. There is no option to correct the problem and stay.

Ten-day warning for not following the rental agreement: If you break one of the terms of the rental agreement, the landlord can give you a 10-day notice to comply or vacate. Example: your landlord could tell you to move out if you have a cat when the rental agreement has a “no pets” rule. If you fix the problem, or “comply,” within 10 days after you get the notice the landlord must stop the eviction process. If you do not fix the problem or move out within 10 days, the landlord can start an eviction lawsuit.

In some instances, a landlord can begin eviction proceedings if you receive three 10-day warnings within a one-year period. In such circumstances, even if you correct the problem within the 10-day time period, the fact that you have now had three notices is still grounds for eviction.

Twenty-day warning: Outside of Seattle, a landlord can issue a 20-day warning to vacate the premises for any reason that is not overtly prohibited. A landlord cannot issue a 20-day notice for retaliation for a tenant asserting their rights (such as filing a complaint or calling the health department for a landlord’s housing violations). A landlord generally cannot issue a 20-day notice for blatantly discriminatory reasons that would violate Washington’s Law Against Discrimination. But outside of Seattle, any other reason is valid, and the landlord does not need to tell the tenant the reason for issuing a 20-day notice. For example, if the landlord wants to sell the building, renovate the place, or let a family member move in, they can issue a 20-day notice. If the landlord simply doesn’t like having you as a tenant, they can issue a 20-day notice.

A 20-day notice cannot be issued if there is a written lease that specifies a longer lease term. For example, if you are seven months into a one-year lease, the landlord cannot issue a 20-day notice. A landlord can issue a 20-day notice 20 days prior to the end of the lease term.

A 20-day notice must be delivered to the tenant at least 20 days BEFORE the usual due date for the rent. For example, if your rent is due on the 1st of every month, the landlord would have to deliver the 20-day notice no later than the 10th of the prior month (or the 11th if the month has 31 days).

The City of Seattle has additional laws protecting tenants. Seattle landlords must have just cause reasons to terminate tenancy or evict month-to-month or other periodic tenants (tenants who pay rent weekly or twice a month). There are 18 total just causes listed in the ordinance. Just causes for eviction include nonpayment of rent, noncompliance with lease terms, chronically late rent payments, and the intention of the landlord to occupy the unit themselves or rent the unit to an immediate family member.

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