A state bill introduced by House Representative My-Linh Thai that aims to protect renters from falling into debt to their landlords because of exaggerated claims of damage to their housing units will be heard in the Housing, Human Services, and Veterans Committee this Thursday, January 28 at 1:30 pm. House Bill (HB) 1300 makes clearer what kinds of damage landlords can charge for, requires detailed documentation of conditions at move-in, and requires landlords to provide written documentation of the costs of any repairs.

“Renters in Washington are being denied housing because of debt for damage claimed by a previous landlord,” said Sarah Nagy, staff attorney at Columbia Legal Services. “The existence of that debt, often exaggerated and rarely backed up by receipts, can make the difference between being housed and being homeless. The law shouldn’t give landlords such an unrestricted power.”

HB 1300 bill would fix the “wear and tear” problem in Washington’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (RLTA). The RLTA currently allows a landlord to require a security deposit from a renter, and under certain circumstances, to retain that deposit to pay for damage the renter causes to the unit. Landlords cannot retain renters’ security deposits for “wear resulting from ordinary use of the premises.” However, this kind of wear is not defined in statute, meaning that renters often find themselves charged for the repair or replacement of many small, everyday items – like light bulbs or drip pans – or large fixtures that deteriorate naturally over time, like kitchen appliances or carpeting. HB 1300 introduces language clarifying the standard and ensuring that landlords cannot make renters bear the full cost of replacement of worn fixtures.

“By providing a definition of normal wear, the bill’s language puts borders around what a landlord can feasibly charge for,” said Nagy. “It reassures the renter that they are not financially responsible for their landlord’s routine maintenance and property upkeep.”

The bill also requires more proof of damage claims by landlords. Under the RLTA, in order to retain a security deposit, a landlord must provide a renter with an itemized statement of charges within 21 days of move-out. But the law requires no corroborating documentation for this list – meaning that renters are often surprised by bills for hundreds or thousands of dollars of damage weeks after they’ve moved out of the unit. The allegations have serious consequences for renters, because outstanding debt to a previous landlord is grounds to deny a rental application regardless of a renter’s individual circumstances. Few of these cases are ever heard in court, but the allegation of debt alone can pose an insurmountable barrier to housing.

Poverty rates are consistently higher among Black and Latino households in Washington, making these households disproportionately vulnerable to losing housing because of unverifiable debt in their rental history. Section 8 renters can be denied tenancy solely based on debt to a previous landlord, even when their future rent is guaranteed by a housing voucher or other federal program. Even where housing assistance is not involved, debt to previous landlords is more harmful to low-income renters, who have much to lose from challenging exaggerated post-tenancy charges in court, where a bad outcome might result in a high-interest monetary judgment against them. By requiring basic documentation of the actual cost of repairs to a unit, HB 1300 gives low-income renters the tools to challenge landlords’ claims, so they face less chance of being denied housing because of past charges they are not liable for.

The proposed legislation offers renters greater power to contest these allegations by requiring landlords to provide basic documentation to corroborate damage charges. The bill prevents landlords from retaining a security deposit unless the renter is provided with a written checklist documenting the unit’s condition at the beginning of tenancy. It also prevents landlords from retaining a deposit at the end of tenancy unless they provide written documentation, such as estimates, invoices, or receipts, to substantiate charges for damage to the unit.

The bill also requires landlords to commence actions to recover amounts greater than the security deposit within one year of the end of a tenancy. As the rental housing market grows tighter, renters find themselves barred from housing by allegations of debt from tenancies years in the past—long after they have any hope of obtaining the documentation needed to contest the charges. By requiring landlords to substantiate damages and to commence the process of recovering money within a year, the bill helps prevent old claims with no corroborating evidence from keeping renters out of new housing.

This bill is one of several 2021 legislative priorities that Columbia Legal Services will be advocating for during this legislative session.

Media Contacts:

Sarah Nagy, CLS Attorney
(360) 519-4279, sarah.nagy@columbialegal.org

Charlie McAteer, CLS Communications
(917) 696-1321, charlie.mcateer@columbialegal.org