On Jan. 11, community organizing nonprofit Be:Seattle and the Legal Action Center held the first of six Tenant Rights Bootcamps to be held across the city through March.

Dozens of area renters packed into Top Pot Doughnuts on Summit Avenue to gain a rudimentary overview of tenancy laws in Seattle. Packed in between the bookshelves that lined the cafe’s walls, their questions were many and varied. When is an eviction illegal? (It depends) Should you withhold rent if your landlord hasn’t made necessary repairs? (No, never) Could a history of questionable clerical errors protect against a big market increase on your next lease renewal? (Probably not)

There were few cut-and-dry answers but, in Be:Seattle director Devin Silvernail’s view, familiarity was the first step to securing fair and affordable housing.

“It’s gotten really expensive to live in this city,” said Devin Silvernail of Be:Seattle. “We want you to be empowered and we want you to know your rights.”

Seattle is an oddball among major American cities. Though it made inroads against housing discrimination in 1968 with the Open Housing Initiative, rapid boom and bust cycles in the housing market and lobbying by rental housing interests led to a statewide ban on the rent control measures that can be found in metropolitan centers like Manhattan or San Francisco.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s legislation limiting move-in fees, passed in December, presented a recent win tenant rights, Silvernail said.

Other laws meant to protect renters are ambiguous. Washington state law gives courts leeway to refuse to enforce “unconscionable” clauses or fees in a lease. But what constitutes unconscionability is undefined in statute, and left entirely up to the court to determine on a case-by-case basis.

“We want you to be comfortable asserting your rights, but also cautious about the battles that you choose,” said attorney Maureen Roat. “Because we live in a landlord-friendly market.”

Roat is an attorney with the Legal Action Center, a division of Catholic Community Services’ housing division that provides legal advice to people facing evictions or the loss of housing subsidies. She argued that, even if they believe they have a great relationship with their landlord, every tenant should be prepared for the worst.

“Even if you’re friendly with your landlord, we’ve had clients who were renting from family who have found themselves facing an eviction,” Roat said.

But there is some hope in these cases. And as with all layman exercise of the subtle alchemy of the law, the ability to succeed (or at least minimize the worst possible outcome) comes down to knowing how to navigate -- and contribute to -- the all-important paper trail.

Without written evidence, court cases come down to the word of one party against another, with the law weighted toward the party that holds property, Roat said.

Leases need to be read and understood in full. Ditto any additional documents, now matter how routine. If market rates are rising well above what a tenants are currently paying, landlords may rely on “gotcha” evictions -- heavy-handed enforcement of tedious rules like secured garbage can lids or the allowable number of plants on a patio -- to clear space for more lucrative occupants.  

If the landlord requires a nonrefundable fee for a background and credit check, they need to provide applicants their pass/fail criteria in writing before the applicant agrees to go forward.

Even if your lease was made on a handshake, you have protections.

“If you have a verbal agreement, your tenancy is month to month,” Roat said. “If you have a month-to-month agreement, you actually have a number of rights people outside the city don’t have. For example, you can only be evicted for cause.”

The responsibility to document doesn’t end once a tenant’s in an apartment. All requests, for repairs or otherwise, should be made in writing. (Ironically, the increasing use by landlords of phone text messages to communicate with tenants can make documentation more difficult, as SMS records can be more difficult to obtain and are easier to doctor, Roat said)

Tenants should also consider keeping a log of landlord visits to the rental property, Roat said. An unannounced visit or entry onto the property by a landlord isn’t illegal per se. And, if visits evolve into illegal harassment, documentation will be necessary to prove the landlord has visited with onerous frequency.

Despite of the weight of the law resting on the side of landlords, Seattle renters have won an increasing number of civil rights in the past year by self-organizing, Silvernail said.

In addition to move-in fee legislation, tenants from the Charles Street Apartments in the Rainier Valley organized and successfully lobbied the City Council to pass the Carl Haglund Law in June. The law, named for the West Seattle-based owner of the Charles Street Apartments and several other rental properties across the city, prohibits landlords from increasing rent as long as they remain in violation of city law, such as if they’ve failed to make repairs or remove vermin.

In August, the City Council also passed a ban on source of income discrimination, preventing landlords from denying housing to employed applicants based on their job, such as if they’re independent contractors.

At the state level, the law was amended to give courts the explicit power to exclude improper or overturned evictions from tenants’ searchable records.

Each law was the result of a few tenants organizing and reaching out to lawmakers and the press until they gained traction, Silvernail said.

“If you have four to five people, that’s when the ball starts rolling,” he said. “... The biggest thing you can do to get city hall on your side is to call, call, call.”

The Tenant Rights Bootcamp took the form of a brief legal overview, followed by a question-and-answer session. The Capitol Hill was the shortest of the planned workshops, with future events running two hours.

Be:Seattle and the Legal Action Center will hold five more workshops through March 22.

The next will be held 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at Sureshot Espresso in the University District. At 6:30 p.m. Feb. 8, another will be held at Taproot Cafe and Bar in Columbia City, and at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at Jude’s Old Town in Rainier Beach.

Locations for a March 8 workshop on the North End, and a March 22 workshop in the Central District, are to be determined.

More information can be found at seattletenantbootcamps.org.