Tenant Rights for Older Adults: The Basics

Older couple at home reacting to many bills

They didn’t know what they would do. Their fixed income was barely covering shelter and food. The escalating rent to live in the modest apartment they thought would be their last was becoming prohibitive. Unresolved maintenance issues were mounting and repeated requests for repairs were either dismissed or completely ignored. A small group of residence neighbors decided that they had had enough. They told the site manager that, due to his continued disregard for their concerns, they would need to report conditions to the property management company. The residents were then threatened with eviction if they took any action or made any complaints.

The above scenario, while anecdotal, is based on a compendium of actual events. The residents were not evicted, their concerns were eventually addressed, and some changes were made in onsite management.

This scenario also underscores the reality that older people are not always aware of their rights as tenants, or of landlord responsibilities and may endure threats and intimidation because of their lack of knowledge.

In an environment where government and social service agencies are looking for creative ways to encourage and enable successful “aging in place” for older adults, living in one’s own home does not always mean living in one’s owned home. This is especially true for marginalized, disenfranchised, disaffected, and lower-income older adults.

A 2018 report titled “Moving Toward Age Friendly Housing in King County” found that 25 percent of King County households with an individual age 60 or over rent their homes, and over half of those households are either moderately or severely burdened by housing costs. Exorbitant rent plus associated relocation costs often make moving from an unsatisfactory rental property prohibitive. Those are reasons why it is important to thoroughly read your rental agreement and know your legal tenant rights.

First, read and understand your lease agreement. If that presents a challenge, seek out community resources such as Community Living Connections for community referrals, Columbia Legal Services for free legal assistance, or Solid Ground for additional services. Note any items in the lease agreement, or any subsequent addendums, that you question or disagree with. Discuss them with your site manager. Know the procedure for submitting maintenance requests.

As an older adult, understand what environmental accommodations can be made to your unit if your physical stamina or mobility declines. Know what may or may not be the property owner’s or manager’s responsibility to help accomplish these things. Some newer affordable housing developers are proactively incorporating Universal Design principles—”ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities.”

Second, if you feel your tenant rights have been violated or unresolved issues are escalating, get help. The links above can be invaluable. See also Washington Law Help for legal information, the Northwest Justice Project for legal help, and the Tenants Union of Washington State for all things tenant related, from housing search, housing discrimination, moving in, moving out, tenancy, eviction/termination, and a host of other tenant-related information. Be aware that Tenants Union counselors are not attorneys; however, the information they provide can point you in the appropriate direction.

Contributor Lynda Hunter coordinates volunteer programs at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County.

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of AgeWise King County.