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To read the specific laws in the WA State Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, click on the RCW (Revised Code of Washington) links throughout the Tenant Services website.
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All city of Seattle tenants living in buildings with three or more units are covered under the third party billing ordinance. Third party billing is when the landlord is billed by the utility company and then passes the cost on to the tenants living in the rental units. The landlord is billed for utility usage based on the entire building’s charges or master meter, and then divides the bill up and sends it to individual units. Tenants are charged based on the divided total bill, rather than their individual utility usage. Sometimes landlords use billing companies to divide and calculate the bills for each unit. These companies may be based outside of the state, but they still must conform to third party billing rules for all units located in the city of Seattle. It is legal for landlords to bill tenants for utilities, and to use out of state billing companies, but they must conform to the obligations set out in the third party billing ordinance. The ordinance requires landlord and billing agencies to disclose detailed information to tenants about their bills and to be transparent about their billing practices.
There are very few regulations about utilities in the Landlord-Tenant Act, so it is a good idea for tenants to take precautions to ensure that no problems regarding utilities arise during their tenancy.
- Ask questions about utility service and billing before you sign a lease. Common utilities in rental units include electric, gas, water, sewer and garbage. Other services in a rental unit, such as phone service or cable, are considered amenities and the sole responsibility of the renter to set up and maintain independent of the rental agreement and landlord. Your rental agreement should specifically state any and all policies regarding utility service and billing, including any late fees that may be assigned by the landlord for late payment. Look to your rental agreement to see what utilities you are responsible for paying, and whether or not those utilities need to be in your name.
It is illegal for the landlord to shutoff a tenant’s utilities intentionally for any other reason than to temporarily make necessary repairs (RCW 59.18.300). The tenant may recover up to $100 a day or portion of day they are without utilities and actual damages in Small Claims Court. Written documentation of the situation is extremely important.
1. If You as a Tenant Are Behind on Utility Bills
If you do not consistently pay utility bills, you run the risk of having your utilities shut off. Units that do not have utilities are condemnable under emergency order of the city or county in which your unit is located. There are currently no protections in state law against utility shutoffs for renters with disabilities or small children, but it’s possible that individual utility providers provide some such protection or that it is covered under the Federal Fair Housing Act. Contact your utility provider directly to find out more information. They may be willing to delay shut offs for tenants who have good payment histories. In addition, low-income tenants have some protections against shutoffs of heat during the winter months. See the “Washington Law Help”: http://www.walawhelp.org publication Public Utilities for more information.
Section 8 voucher holders have some special considerations regarding utility calculation and usage. Section 8 vouchers factor in a certain amount to cover utility costs in your unit. Utility allowances are calculated using a complicated system that factors in your household size, the type of utilities and the type of unit you live in. Unfortunately, not all units are well insulated enough to keep utility costs down to the housing authority estimated calculations. The Section 8 program does not have funding set aside to supplement higher than anticipated utility costs, but you can apply for utility assistance to help with high bills. Some utility companies offer financial assistance and some offer free weatherization for units occupied by low income families. Your landlord may be willing to work with you to bring utility costs down by taking advantage of these programs, which are often free. Seattle’s weatherization program is called HomeWise, and the King County Housing Authority has a Housing Repair and Weatherization program for low income renters and homeowners. There are some utility assistance programs that may be able to help with energy costs. For energy assistance, see Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program or call the Community Information Line at 206-461-3200 or 800-621-4636 or 2-1-1 from a landline.