Do Seattle-Area Renters Need More Help During COVID-19? “There’s no question.”

by Jack Russillo

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting life across the world, and in a city as expensive to live in as Seattle many city residents are unsure of what assistance will come once the pandemic begins to soften and they’re left on their own. Renters are now getting temporary relief and those without homes are finding some temporary aid, like shelters and bathrooms — but neither have long-term solutions. 

As unemployment claims surged to more than 170,000 in Washington State and many renters in Seattle are left without their regular income, the question of how to pay for rent is becoming a daunting one. In response, eviction moratoriums were put in place last month by Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. For the short-term, this means landlords cannot begin the process of evicting tenants due to nonpayment of rent. 

Renters are still expected to pay rent, but if a tenant is unable to pay, a landlord may issue a billing statement or letter to the tenant documenting the rent due. If possible, the Mayor’s Office says that landlords and tenants are encouraged to work out reasonable payment plans. 

“No one should have to worry about losing their home in the middle of a pandemic,” Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González said in a press release when the mayor announced the moratorium. “This moratorium on residential evictions meets the crisis head on, by ensuring those who need to self-isolate can safely do so at home.”

The eviction moratorium is scheduled to end on May 14 in Seattle and on April 17 across Washington State. 

If a rental agreement is set to end during the moratorium, the order does not extend the agreement. If the tenant does not move, the landlord cannot issue a 14-day pay-or-vacate notice — a mandatory notice that all landlords must give to their tenants at least 14 days before filing an eviction lawsuit — until after the moratorium ends. In many jurisdictions, including Seattle, Burien, and Auburn, municipal orders have banned all fees for late or partial payments accrued during the moratorium. The order also notes that landlords must not act on evictions already in process when the order was issued until the end of the moratorium. 

If a landlord violates any part of this eviction moratorium, tenants can file a complaint with the state attorney general’s office. For Seattle residents, tenants who receive any eviction notice during the moratorium can contact the Renting in Seattle hotline (206‐684‐5700) or submit a complaint online.

Many utility providers, including Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, and Puget Sound Energy, also made announcements that they would not be shutting off services for lack of payment during Seattle’s moratorium, which lasts until mid-May. If eligible, renters can enroll in Seattle’s Utility Discount Program, which lowers Seattle City Light bills by 60% and Seattle Public Utilities bills by half. 

Additionally, the United Way of King County (UWKC) partnered with the City of Seattle and King County to expand its existing Home Base program with a $5 million fund to help an expected 2,000 King County residents who have lost income security due to the virus and those who live at 50% or lower than the area’s median income. The project is funded by $1.5 million from King County, $1 million from the City of Seattle, and a $1.5 million grant from the Seattle Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund, combined with funds from corporate donors like Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, and AT&T as well as individual donors.

“This initial investment from our partners represents a good start, and it will allow us to provide immediate help to members of the community who have been hurt by the pandemic,” said Gordon McHenry, Jr., president and CEO of United Way of King County, in a press release. “However, this crisis will be with us for the foreseeable future, and it will require a continuing effort from all of us to chip in and help as much as we can.” 

Renters do not have to be citizens to apply for assistance from Home Base, and they do not need to be unemployed. All they need to do is provide proof that they are King County residents who are behind on their rent, and make less than 50% of area median income.

Aside from paying bills, people have been forced to get creative with their housing as the coronavirus closures extend into May and possibly beyond. Some people have fled the city to quarantine at a friend’s or family member’s home, while others have chosen to stay put and hunker down in their own residence. All the while, rent still needs to be paid on a normal schedule since unpaid months will add up and still need to be paid off once the moratorium ends. 

Jesse Heidohrn is a Columbia City resident currently staying with friends in Beacon Hill for the duration of the quarantine, going on four weeks now. After an invitation to shelter in place came from a group of friends all living in the same house, Heidohrn made the decision to join them for the rest of the emergency with hopes of having more of a day-to-day social life.

“There are definitely more pros than cons,” Heidohrn said. “I get to interact with people and have meaningful conversations with people every day here and that wouldn’t have happened at my house. Even not in times of quarantine, that house has an element of isolation to it, so being with my friends sounded like a better place to be as far as my mental health.”

For people who are unable to isolate and recover safely in their own homes, or who do not have a home, Seattle and King County claim that they’ve worked with partners across the region to create additional shelter space and a range of temporary housing options. Much of the assistance that the city and county projected at the beginning of the pandemic, however, has not been provided.

To create more space for social distancing, King County and the City of Seattle announced that more than 700 spaces for individuals already in shelter would be opened, but as of April 10, the total number was about 200 short of that, reporting by Erica Barnett revealed. Among these locations are the Southwest Teen Life Center, King County Airport, and a location on Harbor Island. On March 5, King County and Seattle also projected an additional 95 spaces for people who are homeless or have not found access to shelters during the quarantine, but only five are currently open, at the Chief Seattle Club’s Eagle Village site. In a memo, Seattle City Council noted that the rest of the 95 spaces are expected by the end of April.

Also in early March, county officials announced the creation of assessment and recovery centers for individuals who are not able to recover from COVID-19 in their own homes, or do not have a home. These sites, including a new center in SoDo (1039 Sixth Avenue South) with capacity for 240 occupants, are still under construction. Once open, the centers should provide space for hospitals to discharge non-emergency COVID-19 cases as well as offer necessary resources, like handwashing facilities, to help combat the spread of the virus that people without shelter don’t always have access to. 

“There’s no question that more resources are needed,” said Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, in an email. “Mayor Durkan has been calling for state and federal resources to protect Seattle’s most vulnerable residents. Until those resources are realized, Mayor Durkan is looking at every available resource to help tenants and is working with public and private partners on innovative rental assistance proposals.”

King County and Seattle also identified sites to offer assessment, recovery, isolation, or quarantine spaces for confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 for residents who are deemed in need of treatment. Public Health officials will prioritize people without homes to safely shelter in, people who are suspected to have or are confirmed to have COVID-19, and those who live with vulnerable populations.

Once individuals have been placed, health monitoring and all meals and basic needs are available for all occupants for free and regardless of their insurance coverage. More than a thousand spaces were announced across King County, including the Kent Econo Lodge (1233 Central Avenue North) and White Center Modulars (206 Southwest 112th Street), though just over 300 are confirmed to be open now. With thousands of people that could fit the definition to be prioritized for these sites, Seattle still needs much more urgent action than the 300 spaces currently open to adequately tend to everyone who needs assistance.

More public services, like the Seattle Parks shower program at the Rainier and Delridge Community Centers, are being offered, but at reduced rates and on a modified schedule.

On March 28, the City of Seattle announced that 14 new portable toilets and six handwashing stations were operational and in place throughout Seattle, 11 days after their initial announcement. Combined with the Seattle Parks and Recreation stations that reopened on April 5 after temporary closures, there are 138 locations with hygiene services that will be available every day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with some open 24/7. Even with the additional hygiene stations, the added resources pale in comparison to other cities around the country, such as Los Angeles, which purchased and deployed hundreds of new facilities to help underserved communities since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

More resources will likely be needed to deal with the pandemic’s fallout holistically and homeless populations will need more than a few restrooms to properly keep the virus from spreading. With the state moratorium on evictions ending this week, and Seattle’s moratorium scheduled to end next month, many renters could still face thousands of dollars in overdue rent with nowhere to turn for help. Though the city and county are taking steps in the right direction, if the effects of the pandemic are going to be widespread and endured over the long-term, then perhaps the solutions should be too.

Jack Russillo is a journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured image:  Sounder Bruce (licensed under a creative commons agreement)