Just Cause laws put neighbors and rental homes at risk

apartment buildings
Just Cause laws are meant to protect residents when their lease expires and the landlord seeks to terminate the rental agreement. In reality, Just Cause limits the ability of housing providers to respond to concerns about harassment, noise, crime and poor behavior that reduces the quality of life for residents of multi-family housing. Photo: freepik.com

This week, the House Committee on Civil Rights and Judiciary will consider HB 2354, a bill that would institute “Just Cause” provisions for rental housing in Washington.

Ostensibly, Just Cause laws are meant to protect residents when their lease expires and the landlord seeks to terminate the rental agreement. In reality, Just Cause limits the ability of housing providers to respond to concerns about harassment, noise, crime and poor behavior that reduces the quality of life for residents of multi-family housing.

As an attorney specializing in housing law, and a four-year veteran in the City of Seattle code enforcement office, I worked on many cases involving Seattle’s Just Cause ordinance.

One such case was with a man who had a special hatred for people of Latino heritage. Latino residents in the building lived in fear of this man who would constantly harass them and call them derogatory names to their face. Due to the Just Cause ordinance in Seattle, management could not simply give him a 20-day notice to end the relationship. They had to proceed with a much more difficult notice and costly process that extended the tenancy and required multiple hearings. This allowed the man to live among and harass his neighbors for many additional months while the issue worked its way through the process.

A particularly horrifying case remains stuck in my mind. It involved a resident who was caught on security camera beating an 80-year-old woman. Due to the Just Cause ordinance, the apartment manager could not simply give him a 20-day notice to vacate. Under the Just Cause process, the low-income housing provider in this case would have had to spend upwards of $20,000 to go through the lengthy process. This would have resulted in the victim enduring the man for additional months, denying a low-income apartment unit from a deserving resident, and tying up resources that could be used to support many more residents.

Seattle’s Just Cause ordinance, just like HB 2354, includes stipulations for criminal behavior. But criminal cases can take months or years to conclude and they require terrified neighbors to testify against neighbors, which risks retaliation from the offender. Even if the police are called, criminal behavior doesn’t equal an automatic departure for a resident under Just Cause.

Just Cause also increases risk and costs for housing providers, which can result in increased rents and tighter screening requirements for everyone. Housing providers have been sued by residents for not being able to enforce community rules on neighbors living under Just Cause protections. If an aggressive neighbor cannot be asked to leave, it opens the housing provider to breach of contract claims by surrounding residents.

I urge legislators to oppose Just Cause laws like HB 2354. Instead, I hope they will focus on policies that increase access to housing, support housing providers, and help the majority of great neighbors and residents enjoy their homes in peace.

Ryan Weatherstone

Attorney at Law, Puckett & Redford, PLLC

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