Landlords as hostage-takers

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Dear John,

A few months ago, I lost my job and fell behind on my rent. My landlord kicked me out because I owed him two months’ rent. When he kicked me out, he changed the locks and would not let me into my apartment to get my stuff. He said that he would only let me in after I paid him for the amount I owe him. I had planned to sell some of my possessions to pay him and to live on. Can he do that?

Sincerely,

Evicted Evita

Dear Evicted,

I am sorry to hear about your financial difficulties and hope you get back on your feet soon. Being unable to provide for yourself is a scary experience and should be met with compassion when warranted.

Washington state’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (view this online at ubne.ws/12Clpze) states the rights and duties of both the landlord and the tenant. In your case, you realize that you owe your landlord for the rental of your apartment. You just lacked the ability to pay and were prevented from taking action to remedy the situation when your landlord denied you access to your source of money, selling your possessions.

The law is clear regarding evictions: A strict procedure must be followed before a landlord is able to remove a tenant from her home.

It sounds like your landlord resorted to self-help to solve the problem. If he did not follow proper procedure, he could be liable for an improper eviction. There are penalties for doing this, including compensating you for the value of your belongings.

The law does not allow a landlord to keep a tenant’s possessions as collateral for unpaid rent. Many landlords try to do this on the belief that this is the only way they will ever recover their money owed to them. In some instances, the landlord’s belief is accurate, but the law still prevents them from keeping property.

If your landlord followed proper procedure, you would have been notified of his intent to evict you and possibly given a chance to remedy the problem by paying him the amount owed. If you failed to pay him, he could then have you evicted and all your possessions would be moved from the apartment to the curb, which is not a pleasant or secure alternative to keeping them until you pay.

One problem with the procedure is that the landlord does not want to spend the money to resolve the problem and the tenant often cannot afford to defend herself against a landlord who doesn’t want to follow the law.

Evictions are never a good thing for either party. A tenant wants to live peacefully in their home. A landlord wants to collect rent from a quiet tenant who doesn’t cause damage. Unfortunately, things don’t always happen as intended. This often leads to a volatile situation, which is why the law is clear about the steps that need to be followed to resolve the problem.

Good luck,

John

John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney. No attorney-client relationship is established via this column, which is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Any information given is to illustrate basic legal concepts and does not state how any court would decide any matter. Have a question? Ask John at askjohn@wwub.com.

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