Protestors march outside Seattle City Hall carrying signs that read "Cancel Rent," "Quality Public Housing for All," and "Tax the Rich."

OPINION: Renters Must Get Organized to Win ‘Just Cause’ and Other Protections Against Eviction

by Kshama Sawant

Two years ago, working-class renters at the Bryn Mawr apartments in Skyway were stunned to find notices from their landlord tacked on their doors. The papers told them: Get out.

The landlord gave no reason for the eviction notices, because under King County law, he did not need to.

In danger of becoming homeless, the Bryn Mawr tenants fought back. They reached out to my socialist Seattle City Council office and, together with community groups, we organized a press conference to expose the landlord’s threat. Then we spearheaded a letter from 30 community leaders demanding that the landlord rescind the eviction notices. We made plans to deliver the letter and publicize it in the media.

Just before our delivery, the landlord backed off and renewed the leases. Together, we showed that when tenants fight back, unite, and organize, we can win!

The successful fight back at the Bryn Mawr apartments exposed a huge gap in tenant rights in King County. I’m excited to hear that the County Council has announced that they will be taking steps to change the law, to require that landlords provide a “just cause” — a legitimate reason — for terminating a lease.

Seattle has had “just cause” protections for tenants since 1980. Unfortunately, the Seattle law also has a major loophole that urgently needs to be closed. Corporate landlords and slumlords have thoroughly exploited this loophole and it is about to become an even bigger danger to renters in the context of COVID and the housing crisis.

The problem? While Seattle renters on month-to-month leases are currently covered by “just cause” protections, renters on so-called “term leases” are not. This means all tenants with fixed term — often 6- or 12-month leases — do not have any “just cause” protection at all. And in fact most Seattle leases are term leases. As a result, when tenants’ leases are up, their landlord can evict them abruptly for no reason at all, just as the Bryn Mawr landlord tried to do.

In the wake of our movement’s recent renter rights victories — the winter eviction ban, the eviction moratorium extensions, and our historic Right to Counsel win last week — our movement is now determined to take the next step, and close Seattle’s “just cause” loophole once and for all.

This week, I will be formally introducing this draft legislation to extend “just cause” protections to all Seattle tenants. Councilmember Morales’ office is working on similar legislation and I look forward to joining efforts to make sure we win this.

This is just one of several bills that my office will be advancing in 2021 on behalf of our growing renters’ rights movement. But it is one of the most urgently needed. Our “just cause” legislation will be taken up in April in the City Council’s Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee, which I chair.

The current eviction moratorium expires on June 30. We know that many tenants are still struggling economically as a result of COVID and the capitalist recession. Without “just cause” protections extended before June 30, we could see landlords start to file eviction notices against term lease tenants as their leases expire, beginning in July. Nationally, even the pandemic and the eviction moratoriums have not stopped corporate landlords from filing evictions. And corporate landlords are more likely to evict.

That is why my office is moving quickly to introduce this bill and will fight to win passage before the eviction moratorium expires.

Closing the “just cause” loophole sounds like common-sense policy. But it will not be easy to win.

Corporate landlords are champing at the bit to return to pre-COVID times, when they could more easily evict tenants at the end of term leases. They have gone to court to challenge a new Federal Way “just cause” law, approved by voters in 2019 thanks to a grassroots community campaign led by Washington Community Action Network. They have filed one legal challenge after another — and lost each one — against the renters’ rights victories spearheaded by our movement: the winter eviction ban ordinance, the move-in fee ordinance, and the eviction moratoriums. They are taking advantage of the slightly improving economic picture to raise Seattle rents — most recently, at double the national rate. And they are working aggressively in Olympia right now to water down or kill state tenant rights bills.

Corporate landlords will work in lockstep with the Democratic political establishment to try to either stop our “just cause” legislation or neuter its effectiveness with loopholes.

Now, you might ask: “Why would the Democrats on City Council fight ‘just cause?’ Didn’t they just all support Kshama’s Right to Counsel legislation?”

The reality is that many Democrats on City Council fought hard to undermine our Right to Counsel bill, arguing when we introduced the proposal last year that it was impractical, then more recently asserting that the state legislature would take care of the problem, and even raising the absurd claim that rich Seattle renters would take advantage of free legal aid. In the end, we won passage of Right to Counsel legislation only because community members spoke up by the hundreds and made it clear to the Democrats that they would pay a political price by siding with the corporate landlord lobby.

Our movement won because we understood that we had to make bold demands, involve hundreds of tenants and grassroots activists, and refuse to make backroom compromises with the establishment.

In stark contrast, look at what is happening in Olympia right now on tenant rights. Earlier this year, Democrats — who firmly control the Washington State House, the Senate, and the governor’s mansion — introduced House Bill 1236 to require Washington State landlords to provide “just cause” for evictions.

As the bill wound its way through the legislative process, the bill was amended to exclude first-time term leases from “just cause” protections. That is a huge loophole! Another amendment allows landlords to proceed with evictions if they have an (undefined) “legitimate economic or business reason.” Another huge loophole!

These pro-corporate-landlord loopholes were negotiated behind closed doors, drafted in secrecy, and introduced right before the final House vote. And just who proposed and voted for these loopholes? Was it right-wing Republicans? No, it was House Democrats, who control the chamber by an overwhelming 57–41 and had no need to make “compromises” to get Republican votes.

To be clear, even in its weakened state, House Bill 1236 overall would represent a big improvement for many tenants in Washington State. But the concessions to the big landlord lobby that the Democrats — including progressive Democrats — have willingly made, shows the stark difference between business-as-usual politics of the establishment and our fighting working-class approach.

As the Bryn Mawr tenants and allies correctly recognized two years ago, and as we just experienced this past week with the historic Right to Counsel victory, it takes an independent, fighting approach to demand and secure our rights. And when we embrace that fighting approach, we can win.

In the coming weeks, let’s work together and build our grassroots movement to demand “just cause” rights for all tenants in Seattle — no backroom deals, no secret bill-writing, no exclusions, and no loopholes.

Kshama Sawant is a Seattle City Councilmember.

Featured Image: Protesters called for improved renters’ rights during a rally outside Seattle City Hall on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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