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Housing justice: Tenants' rights as renters

Even in an excellent rental market, tenants can benefit from knowing their rights.

A small group of Federal Way residents gathered Feb. 6 to learn more about their rights as renters. Alouise Urness, a community organizer and tenant counselor with the Tenants Union of Washington, reviewed the state's residential landlord-tenant act (RCW 59.18). She also answered questions and spoke about common problems tenants convey to the Tenants Union.

The Tenants Union is a non-profit agency established to help foster housing justice. It offers free rental advice and educates renters on their rights as tenants. The group also serves in a fair housing advocacy role and attempts to influence public housing policies in a way that benefits tenants, according to the Tenants Union Web site, www.tenantsunion.org.

"Knowing your rights is half the battle," Urness said.

Inquiries about deposits, leases and promised improvements to a property are commonly heard by the Tenants Union, Urness said. Landlords may charge a holding fee or a deposit. But neither, by state law, can be accepted by a landlord unless he or she is offering to rent the property to the tenant, Urness said. It is not legal to charge these fees to place an interested tenant's name on a waiting list, she said.

Leases are legal binding documents and can serve to protect the tenant if they are entered into wisely. If a landlord makes promises to do repairs or improvements, those ought to be made before a tenant moves in or they should be included, in writing, in the lease as something that will be finished within a given time period, Urness said. Negotiating a lease, deposit or improvements to the property are easier done before move-in, she said.

"In a way, you do have more power before you move in because you could choose not to move in," Urness said.

‘They'd help me and I'd always prevail’

Tenants often ask the Tenants Union for assistance in addressing home repairs, Urness said. Per law, tenants must submit a written request for repairs. Landlords have a specified timeframe, ranging from 24 hours to 10 days, to attend to the repair.

Another common disagreement between landlords and tenants is that of privacy, Urness said. A landlord must give a tenant 48 hours notice if he or she plans to enter the residence. If the property is being shown to a prospective new renter, 24 hours notice must be given, according to law. Notice is not mandated upon an emergency.

"If the landlord knows you know your rights under the law, that can be very helpful," Urness said.

Disagreements between a tenant and landlord often arise when the renter is moving out. The tenant has the responsibility of leaving the property in the condition it was upon moving in, Urness said. To ensure a landlord does not attempt to charge for any uncaused damages to the property, tenants ought to document the condition of the home prior to moving out, she said. This can be done by taking photographs of the property. Do not rely on a verbal confirmation or a casual walk-through as a guarantee a deposit will be returned, she said. These actions may not hold up in court.

"The walk-through doesn't really mean much," Urness said.

Federal Way resident Charolette Thompson has first-hand experience with the benefits of being aware of the Tenants Union and knowing the landlord-tenant act. She has called the Tenants Union four times in the past 10 years, she said. The union was able to help her in three instances.

"They'd help me and I'd always prevail," Thompson said.

In one case, a landlord tried to charge Thompson for four rust spots left on the carpet by Thompson's chair. With the help of the Tenants Union, Thompson was able to negotiate the fee she paid to remove the stains. She submitted, to her landlord, a written letter including three quotes she had received to clean the carpet. Instead of paying $300 for the damages, she paid $5, she said.

Learn more

• Tenants Union of Washington State: www.tenantsunion.org or (206) 723-0500.

• Residential landlord-tenant act: www.leg.wa.gov.

Tips for tenants

• Put all requests in writing, cite the law if need be and have some way to prove the landlord received the written request. A copy of the request, signed by the landlord, or certified mail will do.

• Get receipts for all payments made, whether they be rent payments, deposits, holding fees, etc.

• Be familiar with the state's landlord-tenant act. The act, among other things, includes language that dictates the timeframe in which a repair must be addressed.

• Complete a checklist prior to move-in. This list can serve as legal documentation of the condition of the property upon move-in.

• Upon move-out, document the condition of the property by taking photos. The Tenants Union recommends the photographs include a newspaper page bearing the current date, as these hold up better in court than digitally dated photographs.

• Keep a copy of all rental documents, including the lease, repair requests and other issues or complaints.

• Be aware of the law as it applies to foreclosure. If a landlord's property is being foreclosed upon, the tenant must be notified. The tenant has 60 days, per state law, and 90 days, per federal law, to vacate the residence.

Source: Alouise Urness and the Tenants Union of Washington State.

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