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When the notice arrived, it took Donna Seay back to a place she didn’t want to go.
Seay had lived at the Tiki Apartments in Tacoma for just three months when, last year, the development’s new owner issued surprise eviction notices to each and every resident.
In short order, all hell broke loose. Eventually, the outcry over the mass displacement helped spur a host of new tenant protection laws in Tacoma.
Meanwhile, in the state capital of Olympia, lawmakers crafted a host of new laws designed to reduce evictions. That included new legislation, which took effect in July, extending the amount of time a tenant facing eviction receives for failure to pay rent.
Today, it seems landlords and property management companies are using laws meant to soften the threat of eviction as a hammer.
Seay lives at the remodeled and re-branded Highland Flats, the property formerly known as the Tiki. Through a partnership with the Tacoma Housing Authority and the property’s owner, Highland Flats offers subsidized rents to Tacoma Community College students who have experienced or are at risk of homelessness and low-income renters.
So on Aug. 2, when Seay — and many of her neighbors — received what’s known as a pay-or-vacate order for failure to pay rent on Aug. 1 from Allied Residential, the property management company employed by Highland Flats, she was surprised and terrified.
“The initial reaction was a state of panic,” Seay recalls.
Like many at Highland Flats, Seay says she gets by in large part on her monthly Social Security income, which arrives on the third of every month. She says she pays rent once the money hits her bank account, without fail.
It’s never been a problem before, she says.
“I was here at the Tiki when we got displaced, and receiving these, I was thrown back into the PTSD from last year,” Seay explains.
The big question is why is this happening?
What Seay experienced wasn’t an isolated event, according to tenants rights advocacy groups and the state lawmaker who helped craft a host of new tenant protection laws designed to curtail evictions.
They describe a pattern where landlords and property management companies around Washington — Spokane, Lynnwood, Tukwila and Tacoma — seemingly took a page out of the same playbook, issuing 14-day pay or vacate orders on Aug. 2 to anyone who didn’t promptly pay rent on the first of the month.
Multiple attempts to reach Allied Residential, as well as landlord and property management company advocacy groups like the Washington Multifamily Housing Association, were unsuccessful.
From Seay’s standpoint, the move seems designed to instill fear and intimidation, targeting a particularly vulnerable rental population in the process.
“I feel like they’re retaliating (against the new law), personally,” Seay says.
A big part of those tenant protection laws was extending the amount of time — from just three days to 14 days — that a tenant is required to receive before facing eviction for failure to pay rent.
Again, this was a change designed to curb evictions.
What it wasn’t designed to be, according to state Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, was an opening for landlords and property management companies to scare the bejesus out of low-income tenants every month.
The 14-day pay-or-vacate legislation, according Kuderer, was negotiated in “good faith” between lawmakers, tenant advocates and representatives for landlords and property management companies.
To see it used like this, Kuderer tells The News Tribune, is “shameful.”
“Technically, it doesn’t violate the law, but it certainly violated the spirit of the law and violated the goals we had discussed during many, many hours of discussions and negotiations,” Kuderer says.
That is certainly true.
Under the previous law, landlords and property management companies could issue 3-day pay-or-vacate orders as soon as the rent was a day late.
The same is true now. The only difference is that tenants now have 14 days to respond — and pay up or pack up — instead of just three.
What’s different, according to Amy Tower of the Tenants Union of Washington, is the aggressive way many landlords and property management companies appear to be utilizing pay-or-vacate orders in response to the new law and the newly extended 14-day warning period.
“It seemed like a coordinated effort,” Tower says. “The fact that landlords and property management companies across the state were acting in similar ways was very disturbing.”
Unfortunately, there’s more than just fear at stake.
According to Scott Crain, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, the vigorous use of pay-or-vacate orders by landlords and property management companies can actually weaken some of those protections.
Beyond extending the pay-or-vacate window, the state’s new tenant protection laws created an avenue for judicial discretion in eviction cases, including the ability for judges to consider outside factors and keep tenants facing eviction in their homes in certain circumstances.
Under the new laws, Crain points out, tenants who receive at least three pay-or-vacate orders become ineligible for all of the above.
“It’s pretty shocking that they’re using this tactic, and it’s really going to have some bad effects on people,” Crain says.
Kuderer, meanwhile, is contemplating the apparent need to come back next legislative session and further strengthen tenant protection laws.
“I think (landlords and property management companies are) doing it because they didn’t like the changes to the law,” Kuderer says. “This type of conduct just cries out for us to look at it more closely.”
Back at Highland Flats, a spokesperson for the property tells The News Tribune that, moving forward, they’ll wait until the fifth of the month to issue pay-or-vacate orders for nonpayment of rent, describing the unintended impact on residents as “too strenuous.”
Seay, meanwhile, says she’s already seeing the ripple effect that the aggressive orders are having.
She says residents who were previously planning to take part in an upcoming tenant workshop covering tenant protections under the new law are now having misgivings.
“Now they’re in fear that if they participate, they’ll be targeted,” Seay says.