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AGO 1992 No. 5 - April 28, 1992
AGO Opinion Header Image
Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington

CITIES AND TOWNS--COUNTIES--LANDLORD AND TENANT--PREEMPTION--Authority of Local Governments to Impose Rent Control.

RCW 35.21.830 and 36.01.130 preempt local governments from imposing rent controls on residential structures or sites.  An ordinance that prohibits landlords from terminating residential tenancies by increasing rent is a type of rent control and is preempted by these statutes.

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                                                                   April 28, 1992

The HonorableGary A. Nelson
State Senator, District 21
106-A Institutions Building
Olympia, Washington
  98504-0421
                                                                                                                   Cite as:
  AGO 1992 No. 5

Dear Senator Nelson:

            By letter previously acknowledged, you have asked for our opinion on a question that we paraphrase as follows:

            Do RCW 35.21.830 and 36.01.130 prevent local governments from adopting ordinances that prohibit landlords from terminating residential tenancies by increasing the rent?

For the reasons set out in the following analysis, we answer your question in the affirmative.

                                                                    ANALYSIS

            RCW 35.21.830 and 36.01.130 were enacted in 1981.  Laws of 1981, ch. 75, §§ 1-2, p. 328.  RCW 35.21.830 provides:

                        The imposition of controls on rent is of state-wide significance and is preempted by the state.  No city or town of any class may enact, maintain, or enforce ordinances or other provisions which regulate the amount of rent to be charged for single family or multiple unit residential rental structures or sites other than properties in public ownership, under public management, or properties providing low-income rental housing under joint public-private agreements for the financing of provision of such low-income rental housing.  This section shall not be construed as prohibiting any city or town from entering into agreements with private persons which regulate or control the amount of rent to be charged for rental properties.

RCW 36.01.130 contains virtually identical language, but refers to counties rather than cities or towns.[1]

            The first sentences of these statutes plainly express a legislative intent to preempt the field of rent control.[2]  The second sentences plainly state that no county, city, or town may "enact, maintain, or enforce ordinances or other provisions which regulate the amount of rent to be charged" for residential properties.   Where, as here, the Legislature affirmatively states its intention to occupy the field, there is "no room for doubt."  Lenci v. Seattle, 63 Wn.2d 664, 670, 388 P.2d 926 (1964).[3]

            The plain language of both statutes effectively preempts counties, cities, and towns from imposing rent controls on residential structures or sites (subject, of course, to the statutory exceptions which are not germane to your question).  A clearly expressed intention to occupy the field of rent control must be given effect.  The conclusion follows that counties, cities, and towns are prohibited from enacting ordinances that regulate or control residential rents.

            The only remaining question, then, is whether the ordinance described in your opinion request regulates or controls residential rents.  The described ordinance prohibits a landlord from terminating a residential tenancy by increasing the rent.  The ordinance regulates the amount of rent charged to residential tenants by limiting the right of a landlord to increase rent if the increase would have the effect of forcing the tenant to vacate the premises.

            We conclude that no county, city, or town may adopt an ordinance that prohibits a landlord from terminating a tenancy by increasing the rent.

            We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

                                    Very truly yours,

                                    KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
                                    Attorney General

                                    J. LAWRENCE CONIFF
                                    Senior Counsel
                                    Assistant Attorney General

JLC:aj


    [1]In 1991 the Legislature passed a technical amendment to RCW 36.01.130, removing the phrase "of any class" from the second sentence.  Laws of 1991, ch. 363, § 43, p. 2079.  This amendment was part of a general act eliminating formal county classes and has no effect on the issue addressed in this opinion.

    [2]Neither RCW 35.21.830 nor 36.01.130 applies to floating home moorage sites.  Laws of 1981, ch. 75, § 3, p. 329.  We assume that your question does not refer to floating home moorage sites.

    [3]The available legislative history is consistent with our interpretation:  "Cities, towns and counties are prohibited from imposing rent controls on single-family or multiple unit residential structures or sites."  Final Legislative Report, 47th Legislature (1981), at 49 (Substitute House Bill 264).

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