Finding safe and stable housing is one of the biggest barriers people face when attempting to flee an abusive relationship. Fortunately, Washington state’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act has special provisions to protect renters who’ve survived domestic violence (DV).
These provisions are meant to make it easier to get out of your current housing without making it a financial hardship – or to make it safer to stay in your current apartment if you prefer. They prohibit landlords from discriminating against you when you look for new housing.
These protections also apply to you if you’ve experienced stalking, sexual assault, or harassment.
To take advantage of your rights under the Landlord-Tenant Act, you’ll first need to get documentation to provide to your landlord.
A court-issued protection order works if you’ve gotten one. You can also get a signed report made to police, medical, or mental health workers; a member of the clergy; or a victim advocate. The report should include the date, time, and location of the incident of abuse, along with a brief description of what happened.
The person who signs this report needs to say in it that you’ve told them the name of the abuser – although they shouldn’t put the abuser’s name in the document.
You’ll also need to tell your landlord in writing that you’ve recently experienced DV or another form of abuse, and you should give them a copy of your protection order or the report described above.
The Northwest Justice Project has a template you can use for the report and examples of letters you can send your landlord in different situations. Visit Personal Safety for Washington state renters to for more information and resources.
If you need to break your lease
If you don’t feel safe in your home and have experienced DV or other abuse in the last 90 days, the law allows you to break your lease without consequences. The abuse doesn’t even have to have happened in your home.
“It could have happened at work or on the street,” says Edgar Aldrett, the Bilingual Tenant Counselor at Solid Ground. “That’s something to be aware of, because it requires the survivor to keep track of the times, dates, everything, to show police.”
Note that you’ll need to pay the full rent for the month you move out, even if it’s only part way through the month.
When you do move, consider applying for the Address Confidentiality Program (ACP). This program assigns you a “legal substitute address” that you can use as your mailing address on public records and for personal use. Your mail will be sent to a secure location, and the ACP will then forward your mail to your actual address.
If you want to stay
If you lived with your abuser and have received a protection order that requires them to move out, your landlord is required to change the locks on your apartment (at your expense) once you’ve provided them with a copy of the order. Your landlord cannot give copies of the keys to your abuser.
If you’re having trouble paying your rent on your own, you have a few options. You could get a roommate and ask your landlord to add them to the lease. You could ask your landlord to transfer you to another unit in the same building. You could even ask your landlord if they’ll lower your rent so you can afford to stay while you figure things out.
“You never know,” Edgar says. “The landlord might have a kind heart and may want to reduce your rent given your situation.”
Whatever you do, be sure to get it in writing. This means that if you make a verbal agreement with your landlord, follow up with an email or letter that spells out the terms of the agreement, and keep copies for yourself.
The one thing you shouldn’t do is stop paying rent. There’s nothing in the law stopping your landlord from trying to evict you if you have unpaid rent.
If the landlord is the abuser
Sometimes the landlord is the person you’re trying to get away from. If that’s the case, you have a right to change the locks on the door to your apartment (but not other locks in your building) at your own expense. If you do change the locks, you must notify your landlord within 7 days and provide them with a copy of your protection order or the report described above.
You’ll have to move out within 90 days of notifying your landlord about the locks unless you notify them within 60 days that you don’t intend to break your lease. During this time, the landlord still has a right to access your apartment, but only in an emergency or if they’ve given you one- or two-days’ notice as required by law.
Remember, if you choose to put a lock on your door, you must continue paying rent or face possible eviction.
Getting your deposit back
If you break your lease early because of a DV situation, your landlord is required by law to return your deposit to you regardless of what it says in the lease.
But what if your abuser has damaged your apartment? In that case, you can ask your landlord to apply for the Landlord Damage Relief Program. If they apply for the program, they can’t keep your deposit.
Being a DV survivor should never get in the way of having the safe, secure housing you deserve. Under state law, landlords can’t end your lease, refuse to rent to you, or refuse to renew your lease just because you’ve experienced DV.
“In essence they can’t discriminate against you because you’re a DV survivor,” Edgar says.
In fact, the tenant screening companies used by many landlords are prohibited from reporting whether you’ve survived DV or other forms of abuse.
- Address Confidentiality Program (ACP)
- Domestic Violence & Harassment (on Solid Ground’s For Tenants webpages)
- Personal Safety for Washington state renters (on WashingtonLawHelp.org)
- Landlord Damage Relief Program
- Northwest Justice Project
- Protection Orders, King County District Court
- Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, Washington state
Still need help?
Solid Ground’s Tenant Tips provide general information for Washington state renters. People with specific questions should call our Tenant Services Voice Message Line at the number below. You can also visit our For Tenants webpages at any time where you’ll find a wealth of self-help information. To learn more about specific renters’ issues, check out our schedule of upcoming Tenant Services Webinars offered in English and Spanish.
TENANT SERVICES VOICE MESSAGE LINE
206.694.6767 | TTY: 7.1.1
Solid Ground’s tenant counselors meet with tenants by phone. Washington state tenants may call our VOICE MESSAGE line, currently receiving messages Mondays and Thursdays, 10:30am – 1:30pm, except holidays (hours and days are subject to change). Please leave a message with your tenant questions, and we’ll return your call as quickly as possible.
Solid Ground Tenant Services Disclaimer
The information contained in or linked to the Solid Ground Tenant Services website is for informational purposes only. Solid Ground makes no claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to its website. Solid Ground cannot act as your attorney, and its staff members are not attorneys. Solid Ground makes no representations, expressed or implied, that the information contained in or linked to its website can or will be used or interpreted in any particular way by any governmental agency or court. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and laws are constantly changing, nothing provided herein should be used as a substitute for the advice of competent counsel.