Can Washington Avoid a Looming Eviction Crisis?

by Ben Adlin

UPDATE: Gov. Jay Inslee announced at a press conference on Thursday that he will extend the statewide eviction moratorium that had been set to expire at the beginning of August, through Oct 15.

Seattle still has time before a wave of evictions hits renters, but that time is running out. With a number of key protections scheduled to end in the coming months, experts are warning of an unprecedented housing crisis that could push thousands in the region out of their homes.

“It was bad before COVID hit, but now it’s gotten worse,” said Jamala Henderson of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, a nonprofit that helps coordinate housing resources and advocacy across the state. “We’re all scrambling to try and figure out how to stave off this so-called eviction cliff.”

Speeding off that cliff could be disastrous. In states such as Texas and Wisconsin, where eviction cases have recently resumed after pausing due to the pandemic, backlogged filings against thousands of households are now making their way through the courts. Some data indicate landlords have disproportionately sought to evict Black and Brown people, groups already bearing the brunt of the pandemic. In at least one case observed by the Washington Post, a judge appeared to be unfamiliar with eviction rules designed to protect certain tenants.

Renters in Washington have so far been shielded from evictions thanks to a statewide moratorium, but their finances have been hit hard. Nearly half — 45.8 percent — of those polled in both Washington and the greater Seattle area said they’d lost employment income during the pandemic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s weekly Household Pulse Survey, which has been tracking the impact of COVID-19 since late April. In the week leading up to July’s rent being due, the survey deemed more than 1 in 5 adults in the state to be “housing insecure.”  The category includes renters and homeowners who either missed last month’s housing payment or who have slight or no confidence that their household can pay next month’s payment on time.

The numbers are even more staggering for vulnerable groups, including low-income people, the elderly, and people of color, especially Black and Brown people. In the Household Pulse Survey, for example, about eight8 percent of Washington renters who identified as white said they missed June rent, compared to 42 percent of Black renters and 24 percent of Hispanic or Latino renters.

The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Enhanced federal unemployment benefits are scheduled to end this month, erasing up to $2,400 in additional monthly income for recipients. Congress is working on a replacement plan, although so far it looks to include considerably less money for unemployment recipients. Even with Inslee’s expansion of the eviction moratorium through mid-October, renters are in a precarious spot. It’s not yet clear whether officials can avert the looming crisis before then. (Seattle has its own moratorium that extends through December.)

“We’re seeing a number of challenges the longer the health emergency continues and the economic strains impact people, both renters and landlords,” said state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Capitol Hill), a longtime advocate for housing access. “Once the moratorium lifts, we’ll have more people in these more tenuous situations.”

Macri, also the deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center in Seattle, is one of a pair of state lawmakers leading a charge to help renters stay in their homes. The other, Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue), chairs the Senate Housing Stability and Affordability Committee. Together with the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, the two are aiming to fundamentally reshape the state’s eviction process.

“What we need to do,” Macri said, “is approach the policymaking in a dramatically different way than we ever have before.”

Heading off a ‘surge’ of evictions 

A crucial first step in the plan is to extend the statewide eviction moratorium significantly — until March 31, supporters say. Not only would that provide slightly longer-term stability for tenants, but it would also give lawmakers time to return to Olympia for the next session and attempt to solve the problem through legislation.

“The moratorium has got to stay in place. That’s what people need to rally around right now,” said Michele Thomas, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance’s director of advocacy and policy, who is working closely with lawmakers on the response. “This is the last opportunity to stand up and demand a lot of change, and we shouldn’t squander it.”

Advocates say that if the moratorium were to stretch through March, lawmakers could then focus on reforming the eviction process itself. “What we’re trying to do,” Kuderer said, “is head off a surge of evictions once that moratorium expires, whenever that may be.”

Specifics of the plan are still forthcoming, and those involved said some of the details will depend on the results of state and federal elections this year. Wins by Democrats and progressives would make reforms easier to pass at the state level, they said, while Democratic control of the U.S. Senate and White House would likely mean more federal support for state-level housing programs. But generally, supporters said, the goal of reforming the eviction process would be to better balance burdens among renters, landlords, and stakeholders like banks and utility companies. Tenants would be asked to pay what they could afford, but landlords would also need to demonstrate the actual costs of the housing they provide, such as mortgage payments and upkeep expenses.

“We need to figure out how we can set reasonable standards for those who can contribute,” Macri said, “and not harm those who can’t.”

Negotiations would take place out of court, perhaps in a mediation setting, and would be aimed at reaching a sustainable arrangement that could be included in a new lease agreement or other resolution.

“We want to preserve our housing inventory and we want to preserve tenancy,” said Kuderer, “especially for those who are at most risk of falling into homelessness.”

Equity will be a top priority throughout the process, supporters said. “I think it’s important to prioritize, on the landlord side, the small mom and pops,” Kuderer said. “On the renter side, I think we need to prioritize those who are low-income, very low-income, or undocumented folks that are frozen out of federal government programs. They are going to be most at risk of falling into homelessness, and the last thing that we want in the middle of a pandemic is to have more people on the streets.”

Perhaps the most controversial element of the plan is its effort to tackle the housing market’s profit margin. In tight economic times, Macri and others said, the system needs to put less emphasis on protecting landlords’ profit and more on putting housing first.

“The price of rent isn’t necessarily correlated to the cost of providing housing,” Macri explained. “There’s profit built into the system, and in an emergency like this, we need to minimize the amount of resources that are going toward making profit. Because when resources are going to make a profit, it means that those who are most vulnerable in their ability to pay are the most likely to be harmed.”

For now, lawmakers and housing advocates say that anyone having difficulty paying rent should seek help from a counselor before they sign any agreements with their landlord.

“People should know exactly what their rights are and get in touch with a counselor for advice,” said Thomas at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. A state provision, for example, now requires landlords to negotiate reasonable payment plans with tenants unable to pay overdue rent. “You do not have to agree to start paying before you have income,” Thomas said.

She also pointed tenants toward support organizations including the Tenants Union of Washington State, Solid Ground, the Northwest Justice Project’s CLEAR hotline, and others. The city of Seattle also has a website with additional resources for renters.

While the severity and scale of the economic downturn can be daunting, Thomas feels optimistic. With an extended moratorium and more time to put a plan in place for the coming legislative session, she believes it’s possible for the state to avert a full-blown crisis.

In announcing the extended eviction moratorium on Thursday, Inslee also announced the establishment of an “informal working group of landlords and tenants to discuss potential changes to this order in the short-term and the long-term, if an additional extension is needed.”

Inslee said it was imperative that landlords and tenants continue to communicate throughout the pandemic. He urged renters who are able to pay rent to do so, saying the extension is not a rent vacation.

“This is meant to protect renters from falling into homelessness if they are struggling. But it does not give you the right to refuse to pay rent if you have the means to do so,” he said. “I expect landlords and tenants to remain in communication. If you haven’t spoken to them since March, when we first announced this moratorium, it’s imperative that you do.”

Inslee also reminded landlords that his proclamation “does not allow landlords to harass or intimidate tenants” but rather “allows for ways to constructively collaborate on securing payments.” He also noted that tenants can still be evicted for criminal offenses.

Meanwhile, state programs will attempt to blunt COVID-19’s economic impact on household and landlords. Mike Faulk, deputy communications director and press secretary for the governor’s office, said the state Department of Commerce has a rental assistance program in development that will be funded by the federal CARES Act.

The department’s separate landlord mitigation program also can also help renters and landlords with additional state aid. “This program is well-used by landlords and tenants to avoid evictions,” he said. “The governor’s office is working with landlords, tenants and legislators in finding the right balance for a path forward.”

The future remains uncertain for renters, but with a plan coming together and politicians committed to the cause, Thomas has hope. She encouraged renters facing difficulties to reach out to their legislators and share their stories — and to vote.

“Our government’s been way more responsible than other states,” she said. “We have the possibility to do everything that’s needed to prevent people from experiencing homelessness and experiencing crippling debt for years to come.”

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist.

Featured image: Eviction by Urban Bohemian.