Supporters of House Bill (HB) 1074, which recently passed in the Washington state Senate, are pushing to increase protections for renters by requiring landlords to document repairs before withholding a security deposit.
The bill works to close loopholes in current state law that have allowed landlords to keep hefty security deposits from tenants when they move out or their lease ends.
“Your damage deposit is gone as soon as you hand it over,” Rep. Alex Ramel (D-San Juan County), one of the sponsors of HB 1074, said. “My experience was you’re just not going to see that money again.”
HB 1074 passed the Senate April 10 with a 29-19 vote split along party lines and, as of Apr. 25, awaits a signature from Gov. Jay Inslee.
HB 1074 is just one of many bills attempting to tackle the housing crisis in Washington state. According to survey data from the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Americans spent 30 percent or more of their income on housing in 2020. The average rent in the United States rose 18 percent from 2017 to 2022.
Although state laws do address the issue of withheld deposits, they often lack specificity and leave loopholes for landlords. For instance, under RCW 59.18.280, landlords are only required to “give a full and specific statement of the basis for retaining any of the deposit.” By adding clarity to the documentation process required of landlords, tenants can better understand how their deposit is being used and dispute inflated charges, according to the bill’s sponsors.
Under the new proposed rules, landlords would be required to provide tenants with copies of estimates and invoices received to fix any damage to the property. If portions of a security deposit are withheld for the cost of materials needed to make repairs, landlords would also be required to provide a copy of the bill, invoice or receipt to the tenant. Landlords would also need to include a statement of the time spent making repairs, as well as the hourly rate charged by contractors for repairs.
“If the landlord says they’re going to charge the tenant this much money, they have to have some sort of documentation stating the facts,” said Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-Mercer Island), a prime sponsor of HB 1074.
This increased clarity is vital to protect tenants from improper and inflated damage charges as landlords rely on security deposits as a means of income, said Tenants Union of Washington State Executive Director Violet Lavatai.
“It’s a million-dollar industry, holding people’s money,” Lavatai said. “It’s crazy, but this is the reality of why we push this bill.”
HB 1074 also adds clarity to the term “normal wear and tear” by creating guidelines for what landlords can withhold money for. Under current laws, landlords cannot retain any portion of a deposit for damage resulting from normal wear and tear. However, Lavatai says many landlords withhold deposits anyway.
“The laws aren’t clear, we don’t even know what normal wear and tear really means,” Lavatai said. “It’s [HB 1074] being specific, and having receipts to back all these things that they’re withholding.”
Under HB 1074, landlords cannot withhold a deposit for the replacement of fixtures, furnishings and appliances unless their condition was documented in the move-in checklist required under current Washington state laws. HB 1074 also specifies that landlords cannot withhold any amount of a deposit for carpet cleaning without documentation proving that the damage was beyond normal wear.
The new law posits that withheld security deposits disproportionately impact marginalized communities and exacerbate financial hardships and debt. By requiring more documentation from landlords attempting to withhold security deposits, HB 1074 would help to balance power dynamics between landlords and renters, according to Thai.
Stories about landlords withholding deposits are common.
Jacob Feleke, a student at the University of Washington, experienced firsthand how landlords keep deposits for normal wear and tear. The property management company of Feleke’s building kept his entire $2,500 security deposit with additional costs incurred for painting, wall repair, replacement of toilet seats, replacement of door knobs, smoke alarm replacements and more. Feleke says that the only damage done to his unit was the result of normal use of the property.
“We were counting on that security deposit being returned in order to put down another security deposit,” Feleke said.
Feleke says that there needs to be more transparency in the renting process, specifically when it comes to security deposits, so renters can feel confident that their money is being used appropriately.
“We’re just going off hearsay, basically, and just trusting that what they’re charging us for us is actually what we needed to be charged for,” Feleke said.
Many of the sponsors of HB 1074 were motivated by personal experiences as renters, Thai and Ramel said.
“Having been a tenant many times in my life, this particular piece of that landlord-tenant relationship has always felt both unjust and totally powerless,” Ramel said.
It took Thai five years to pass HB 1074. She says the initial fight against what she perceived to be a very fair bill was surprising. According to Ramel, those who opposed HB 1074 expressed concerns that the bill would put landlords at a disadvantage against tenants.
Given the opposition, Thai says some concessions have been made in an effort to keep the bill alive. For instance, HB 1074 increases the time frame for landlords to provide tenants with a statement of the basis for holding their security deposit from 21 days to 30 days. Thai says this amendment ultimately helped the bill pass.
This increased time frame is needed given the amount of documentation required of landlords, according to Ryan Makinster, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-family Housing Association, who spoke during public comment. However, Lavatai says the 30-day time frame negatively impacts tenants by forcing them to wait longer before getting their money.
“It’s just another way of holding the tenant’s money as long as possible. It’s mind boggling,” Lavatai said.
Ramel says that people in his community have expressed to him that the cost of housing is deeply impacting them. Although he believes policies like rent control are still needed to address the barriers to affordable housing, HB 1074 is a step in the right direction, Ramel said.
“Forty percent of people in Washington rent their homes,” Ramel said. “We’ve got to be making sure that there’s a way to keep those people’s lives stable and affordable.”
Scarlet Hansen is a UW student writing for the News Lab.
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