by Kamna Shastri
Seattle continues to wrestle with a homelessness crisis that seems to grow each day. Different circumstances can lead an individual to struggling on the streets, but a report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project is bringing attention to just how much eviction contributes to the pipeline of homelessness.
The report, titled Losing Home, unearths loopholes in tenant laws that put many households struggling to pay rent at an increased risk of eviction. The study is the first of its kind to comb through thousands of documents from 1,218 eviction cases that went through court in 2017. Along with quantitative data, the report incorporates interviews with individuals who had faced eviction. The findings reveal a more nuanced understanding behind why evictions happen, who they affect, and how they factor into our city’s homelessness epidemic.
Who Gets Hit
In a city where more than half the population rents, there are some groups of people who end up victims of eviction more so than others. Here are some of the main findings from the report.
- Women are more likely to be evicted over small amounts of money. Of those who owed $100 or less in back rent to their landowners, 81 percent were women;
- People of color were disproportionately hit with eviction filings. Just over half of tenants evicted were people of color;
- Evictions have negative consequences for mental and physical health. Being evicted took a toll not only on the health of adults, but for families with children. It negatively affected their health, education, and overall well-being.
- Eviction leads to homelessness. About 87 percent of respondents became homeless after being evicted. Only 12.5 percent were able to find an apartment after being evicted.
The Fragility of Tenant Protection Laws
When you move into a new apartment, you’ll be met with a stapled packet of tenant laws and rights to familiarize yourself with. Those laws may seem like they are strong, but they are in fact porous.
The Just Cause Eviction Ordinance (JCEO) is a protection that prevents landlords from evicting residents without a fair reason. The ordinance outlines a list of eighteen causes landlords can use to evict a tenant, including failure to pay rent, failure to follow through on rental agreements, owner wishes to sell property, owner wishes to significantly demolish or renovate property. In most cases, if a tenant is evicted under the JCEO, their landlord does not need to pay any fees to help them relocate or get assistance.
Landlords can also terminate a lease through a Mutual Termination Agreement, which would — in theory — allow both the landlord and tenant to agree that the arrangement isn’t working. Unlike an eviction, a Mutual Termination Agreement would not tarnish someone’s record with the stamp of eviction. But like an eviction, it would leave the tenant without housing.
According to Edmund Witter, an attorney with the Housing Justice Project and coauthor of the report, Mutual Termination Agreements are more often employed by nonprofit housing providers with their tenants. Witter explained the case of a tenant whose building housed affordable housing units and clinic-based services in the same building. This nonprofit housing provider essentially acted as both landlord and mental health provider. This specific tenant had various disabilities and challenges including schizophrenia. According to Witter, he didn’t fully understand what was happening.
“This is basically the equivalent of your doctor being your landlord and saying things aren’t really working out, why don’t you move out within five days, which is what happened to this tenant,” said Witter.
These loopholes weaken the intent of tenant protection laws. That weakness, coupled with systemic racism and sexism and the struggles of working a low-wage job in a rapidly booming city sets tenants up for eviction, and without finding adequate shelter, homelessness.
Tenants are often evicted because of their failure to pay rent for very small amounts of money. Once an eviction notice is filed, usually tenants have a three-day period to comply or vacate. That three-day period is not enough time to make up rent that they could otherwise pay off later in the month.
Three days is also nowhere near enough time to procure the assistance services tenants would need as they go through the eviction process. Assistance agencies and services are spread across the city and have different eligibility requirements. Unlike other cities, such as New York, Seattle does not have wraparound services where all kinds of assistance can be accessed in one place.
Witter has previously been an attorney in the Bronx. In his experience, despite the Bronx being the poorest congressional district in the country, people there did not get evicted. According to Witter, you really would have had to do something heinous to get thrown out.
In Seattle, Witter said “I saw so many people get evicted for small amounts of money and when I practiced elsewhere, I wasn’t seeing that.”
When he saw all the data for evictions in Seattle quantified, “it gave me a sense that I wasn’t just seeing the exception, that this was actually a full systematic way of forcing people out of their homes,” he said.
Xochitl Maykovich — a coauthor of the study with the Seattle Women’s Commission — has interviewed landlords and attorneys in New York while researching the report. She saw vastly different attitudes to eviction from Seattle. When she asked attorneys in New York how often they go after a tenant, one attorney said, “That would be harassment”.
“What we have found in our data too is that landlords are very quick to serve a three-day notice which is what starts the eviction process,” explained Witter. “That is the problem, if you are a tenant who has fallen financially behind, and you are eligible for those financial assistance sources, you are probably not going to get it within those three days.”
What makes the situation more woeful is agencies that can offer adequate assistance services do not operate in a way that would get tenants assistance quickly enough. Often it takes a week to return a phone call.
In light of a flawed system, and with hardly a grace period to make up rent, the report’s findings beg the question of how landlords and courts are so quick and methodical in evicting tenants. In other words, where did human compassion go in all of this?
According to Witter, our legal court system didn’t always operate so mechanically.
“In the last 40 years, our legal system has changed so that no matter what, whether a person is a dollar behind or months behind, it’s the same result,” said Witter. “All the judges have gotten this mechanical way of thinking, breach of lease means eviction.”
That breach of lease — if someone is evicted under the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance — or Mutual Termination Agreement eventually leads to homelessness without proper assistance.
Maykovich says eviction and homelessness make up a pipeline and are deeply intertwined. Sometimes homelessness follows eviction immediately. Other times it is more gradual, the last resort after one has stayed with friends and family too long.
“It’s bizarre [to] me that people separate the two. Shouldn’t we be asking how we got to this point, right? We need to do everything we can to get people housed right now, but we should also prevent more people from becoming unhoused,” she said.
To curtail evictions — and by extension curb homelessness — the report outlines a variety of policy recommendations, including strengthening tenant protections, consolidating assistance services, making it possible to pay back rent owed to a landlord, and ending abuses of Mutual Termination Agreements.
After the report was released, Maykovich presented the findings and policy recommendations to the Seattle City Council. The interest and urgency to act was palpable in the room.
At the presentation, Councilmember Lisa Herbold compared our homelessness issues to using a thimble to scoop out bathwater. The number of people exiting homelessness into permanent housing just doesn’t compare to the number of people who enter homelessness. Evictions are a likely culprit in that imbalance.
The City Council recently released a statement of legislative intent directly responding to the Losing Home report that would convene a report in April 2019 outlining a survey of assistance programs. This report would allow the city to strategize how to consolidate assistance services for renters and tenants facing eviction. The city also released a state legislative agenda, with action items to focus on for 2019. The Council plans to draft new legislation allowing tenants more time to cure nonpayment of rent, improve access to assistance services and fill in the holes of the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance among other goals.
Herbold wrote in an email to the Emerald that the city has previously focused on homelessness as a pipeline issue, with efforts going towards rent payment assistance. But more needs to be done.
“What will move the needle more is addressing the eviction process,” she wrote.
The City will publish a report in April 2019 that will directly address some of the policy recommendations included in Losing Home.