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Residency Requirements for City Employees – Is That OK?

A question we’re asked fairly often is whether a city may require that its employees reside within its jurisdiction?  The answer is that it depends on the form of government the city has and on which employees the requirement would apply to.

If your city is a council-manager code city, you need read no further. RCW 35A.13.110 prohibits residency requirements in a code city that operates under the council-manager form of government. First class cities, which operate under their own charters, are probably not restricted by RCW 35.21.200, discussed below, but are subject to the restrictions in the civil service statutes, also discussed below.

So, effectively only for mayor-council cities, RCW 35.21.200 provides, in part:

Any city or town may by ordinance of its legislative authority determine whether there shall be any residential qualifications for any or all of its appointive officials or for preference in employment of its employees, but residence of an employee outside the limits of such city or town shall not be grounds for discharge of any regularly appointed civil service employee otherwise qualified.

Note that this statute allows for “residential qualifications for “appointive officials” but only a residency “preference” for “employees.” While the statute provides no definitions of these terms to aid a city in making a distinction between “appointive officials” and “employees,” the former would include statutory officials such as the clerk and treasurer and department heads. (Of course, for many purposes, appointive officials are also considered to be employees.)

This statute also places limits on residency requirements, if they are adopted:

  • If the city has a charter, it may not require any residency qualifications different from those set out in the charter, if any;
  • Any employee or officer who was appointed or employed prior to residency requirements being established, or after any requirement was waived, may not be discharged because he or she resides outside the city or town limits;
  • And no city or town – or public utility district – may change residency requirements for employees of a “private public utility” that has been acquired by the city, town, or district.

Even though the above statute allows residency requirements, other state law prohibits cities from requiring residency for its civil service employees.  For city or town firefighters, RCW 41.08.075 prohibits any requirement that a civil service employee or officer

reside within the limits of such municipal corporation as a condition of employment, or to discriminate in any manner against any such person because of his or her residence outside of the limits of such city, town, or municipality.

The same limitation applies to police officers covered by civil service. RCW 41.12.075. (Incidentally, the same prohibition also applies to fire districts. RCW 52.30.050.)

How about response time requirements? Even if a city or town is not permitted to adopt residency requirements for some or all of its employees, can’t it require that some of those employees, such a fire and police, be able to respond to emergencies within a specified period of time? Although we are not aware of any Washington legal authority on point, it is our opinion that a city may establish reasonable response time requirements for any staff members whose skills could be essential in responding to various types of emergencies, such as fires, crimes, utility infrastructure breaks, major disasters, or computer system crashes. Regarding the response time requirements adopted by cities of which we are aware, most fall within the 15-30 minute time range.

Most cities probably do not have residency requirements for their employees, even if they can. Is it a good idea to require residency? Residency helps build a bond between employees and the community they serve. The public may expect city employees face the same restrictions, taxes, policies that they do, and that’s only possible if employees live within the same community where they work. On the other hand, requiring residency limits the size of the pool from which good employees come – probably the strongest argument against requiring residency. The smaller the city, of course, the more that becomes an issue. Ultimately, it is a policy decision, one that needs to be carefully considered.

Finally, note that, if the affected employees of a proposed residency or response time requirement are members of a union, this would be a matter that would need to be bargained.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Paul Sullivan

Paul worked with many local governments and authored numerous MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operations in his many years at MRSC. He is now retired.