In 2021, the Washington State Legislature made significant changes to Washington’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (RLTA). One of the most noteworthy changes is a new provision that restricts landlords ability to refuse to renew a month-to-month rental agreement to when one of sixteen listed “causes” applies. Interestingly this new section impacts an often-overlooked area of landlord-tenant law: transitional housing programs.
Nonprofits that run transitional housing programs may not think of themselves as landlords in the traditional sense. Typically, the primary goal of these programs is philanthropic – helping program participants navigate challenging circumstances and secure permanent housing – not profit. However, the RLTA does not differentiate between nonprofit and for-profit housing providers, so transitional housing provider must be aware of their obligations under the law.
Let’s look at a few of the key definitions found in the RLTA.
“Transitional housing” is defined as “housing units owned, operated, or managed by a nonprofit organization or governmental entity in which supportive services are provided to individuals and families that were formerly homeless, with the intent to stabilize them and move them to permanent housing within a period of not more than twenty-four months, or longer if the program is limited to tenants within a specified age range or the program is intended for tenants in need of time to complete and transition from educational training or service programs.”
The RLTA defines “Rental agreement” or “lease” as “all agreements which establish or modify the terms, conditions, rules, regulations, or any other provision concerning the use and occupancy of a dwelling unit.”
Two observations about this definition: (1) it is written very broadly, and (2) any mention of an obligation to pay rent is conspicuously absent. As a result, any agreement a transitional housing program has program participants sign will likely be considered a lease under the RLTA, even if the organization calls the agreement something else.
“Tenant” is defined as “any person who is entitled to occupy a dwelling unit primarily for living or dwelling purposes under a rental agreement.”
Here again, this definition is broad enough to encompass program participants, even if transitional housing providers do not refer to their clients as “tenants”.
Transitional Housing Programs and “For Cause” Lease Termination
Under the RLTA’s new provision, a landlord can only refuse to renew a periodic tenancy or any rental agreement of less than six months for one of the “cause” provisions listed in RCW 56.18.650(2). As a result, most shorter transitional housing arrangements can now only be terminated by the provider if one of these sixteen “cause” provisions applies.
Thankfully, the legislature included a “cause” provision specific to transitional housing programs:
“The tenant continues in possession of a dwelling unit in transitional housing after having received at least 30 days’ advance written notice to vacate in advance of the expiration of the transitional housing program, the tenant has aged out of the transitional housing program, or the tenant has completed an educational or training or service program and is no longer eligible to participate in the transitional housing program.”
The 30-day written notice requirement is a key new requirement for transitional housing providers to be aware of. It will also be important for transitional housing providers to be able to clearly define when the program expires or when a client becomes no longer eligible to participate.
Notably, transitional housing programs are not limited to utilizing just this one specific “cause” provision. The language of the statute makes clear that any of the other fifteen causes could apply to a particular situation.
In addition, longer-term transitional housing programs (with a duration of between six and twelve months), transitional housing providers can elect to end a lease with a tenant at the program’s expiration so long as (1) the program participant is given proper notice at least 60 days in advance of the lease’s expiration, and (2) all other requirements under RCW 59.18.650(1)(b) are met.
Each of the “cause” provisions involves specific requirements that must be met to be effective. If you have questions about how the “cause” requirements apply to your transitional housing program’s situation, be sure to consult with an attorney.
Local Ordinances May Impose Additional Requirements
Many Washington cities have adopted local ordinances addressing landlord-tenant issues that impose additional requirements beyond those found in the RLTA. Some specifically exempt transitional housing programs from certain requirements, but others do not. For example, while Bellingham exempts shelters and transitional housing from the city’s Rental Registration and Safety Inspection Program, no similar exemption exists in the city’s ordinance requiring landlords to provide tenants at least 60-days written notice of a rent increase of 10 percent or more. For transitional housing programs that require participants to contribute a small amount towards rent each month, even a modest increase in that amount (say, from $100 to $125 a month) could run afoul of this particular city ordinance.
Transitional housing providers should be aware of any relevant local ordinances that may be applicable to their programs.
Housing issues are likely to remain front-of-mind for legislators for the foreseeable future, which means we will likely see further revisions to landlord-tenant laws at both the state and local level over the coming years. Staying up to date on these changes will put transitional housing programs in the best position possible to continue to carry out their important work.
Transitional housing providers with questions about their whether their program agreements, policies, and procedures comply with all current, applicable laws should consult with a landlord-tenant attorney.
Are you a tenant in a transitional housing program looking for information about your legal rights? This article from WashingtonLawHelp.org is a good place to start.
 RCW 59.18 et seq.
 RCW 59.18.650.
 RCW 59.18.030(38).
 RCW 59.18.030(30).
 RCW 59.18.030(34).
 RCW 56.18.650(1).
 RCW 59.18.650(2)(j).
Disclaimer: This article and blog are intended to inform the reader of general legal principles applicable to the subject area. They are not intended to provide legal advice regarding specific problems or circumstances. Readers should consult with competent counsel with regard to specific situations.
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