by Ashley Archibald
Washington’s statewide eviction moratorium expires on June 30, leaving a large number of low-income and vulnerable residents at risk of eviction, even as they struggle to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
State and local governments stepped in to prevent evictions by passing new renters’ rights bills while the pandemic raged through Washington. Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into rental assistance programs, largely from the massive federal government spending plan passed under the Trump administration.
The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March under the Biden administration, will push those numbers higher.
But the scale of the need is huge.
According to the National Equity Atlas, King County renters owe an average of $4,750 in back rent, the highest in Washington state. That figure comes after the injection of tens of millions of dollars in rental assistance during the fall.
But the potential avalanche of evictions is about more than money, said Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales at a May 25 meeting. Morales was introducing new legislation that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants who have struggled financially because of the pandemic.
“This is a systemic issue that has been brought on by generations of disinvestment in communities of color, by racist housing policies that haunt us to this day, and it is really an issue of equity with deep classist and racist roots that we have to solve. In order to do that, we have to take some bold measures,” Morales said.
According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted from April 28 to May 10, an estimated 139,271 Washington households had no confidence that they would be able to make the coming month’s rent and an additional 131,217 had only slight confidence that they could. An estimated 30,571 households reported it was very likely that they would face eviction in the next two months.
A separate National Equity Atlas fact sheet estimated that 34% of Washington’s renters hold rent debt and could face eviction. The burden falls disproportionately on Black and Latino households — 78% of Black households and 71% of Latino households who rent are at risk of eviction compared to 28% of white households.
In King County alone, officials estimated in fall of 2020 that roughly 60,000 households were considered “at risk,” meaning they were making 50% or less of the area median income and paying a considerable portion of their income on housing costs.
Those households are eligible for rental assistance through the county, which would cover up to a year’s worth of rent, including three months of future rental payments. The county has opened two rounds of rental assistance applications totaling $190 million, but county officials recognize that even that amount will not be enough to meet the need of the renters identified.
Renters facing severe amounts of debt spoke at the launch of the “Stay Housed, Stay Healthy” campaign, which has been pushing for more renter protections in Seattle and King County. One 27-year-old said they couldn’t believe the amount of back rent they owed.
“I’m going to have to claim bankruptcy,” they said.
Another spoke of spiraling mental health issues and incredible anxiety caused by the debt. A third said she had to cut into her budget for food for herself and her service dog, and eventually rationed medications. She still fell behind.
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who represents South King County, recalled the feeling when Gov. Jay Inslee announced the statewide shutdown in March. It was one of the hardest days of his life.
“My inbox was flooded with terrified King County residents,” Zahilay told the Zoom audience. People were losing their jobs and their health insurance. But thanks to the moratorium, their housing was safe, for the most part.
“Once the eviction moratorium ends, we will swiftly go from a COVID crisis to an eviction crisis,” he warned.
Efforts to prevent that outcome are in full swing.
As the June 30 deadline looms, localities have rushed to pass renter protections that advocates have wanted for a long time. The state pushed through a “just cause” eviction law, meaning that landlords cannot terminate a month-to-month tenancy without a specific reason. King County introduced a “just cause” law for unincorporated parts of the county that its sponsors say is more robust than the state measure, adding a provision to protect tenants with fixed-term leases.
Seattle, which has had “just cause” protection that has applied to month-to-month leases for years, prohibited landlords from evicting tenants due to nonpayment of rent for at least six months after the COVID-19 emergency formally ends. That comes on top of its existing prohibition on winter evictions. It also established a right to an attorney for tenants facing eviction — according to the Housing Justice Project (HJP), which provides legal advice on eviction cases, only 10% of tenants have an attorney when they appear in court compared to approximately 90% of landlords.
And the Seattle City Council is pushing for more.
In addition to Morales’ bill, the Sustainability & Renters’ Rights Committee passed a measure that would provide a legal defense for families with school-age children and school staff while school is in session. The committee also passed a bill that would require landlords to offer to renew fixed-term leases to tenants, unless they have cause not to do so.
All three pieces of legislation are likely to go before the full City Council on June 7.
Tenants and landlords spoke to the council during public comment. The former thanked committee members for the legislation while excoriating amendments that sought to weaken the bills. The latter said landlords hadn’t been brought to the table, and smaller property owners might end up getting out of the rental business altogether.
An owner moving into their property or selling a property is one of three ways that people can be forced to leave a property under the eviction moratorium, said Edmund Witter, lead managing attorney with the King County Bar Association. He heads up HJP.
Tenants also can be evicted if they constitute a “significant and immediate risk to the health, safety, or property of others,” according to Inslee’s order, and unauthorized tenants may also be forced to leave.
Witter calls the sales exemption “a big loophole.”
“There’s no real requirement that an owner has to sell or move in, frankly,” Witter said in an interview in February. At that time, of the 76 cases that he knew of in which the owner stated their intent to sell, properties were only listed 10 times.
Data compiled by HJP shows that between April 10, 2020 and April 5, 2021, landlords had filed to evict 356 times. Of those cases, 186 came from South Seattle zip codes, unincorporated parts of King County, and South King County cities including Auburn, Burien, Covington, Des Moines, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Kent, Maple Valley, Renton, Seattle, and Tukwila.
By the beginning of May, that number jumped to 419 eviction cases filed, of which 55% had been successfully executed. Most cases were attributed to lease violations or behavior, but 146 were due to the owner’s intent to sell or occupy.
Advocates fear that evictions will rise at the end of the moratorium, flooding courts and exacerbating the existing homelessness crisis.
Seattle and King County have been in a state of emergency around homelessness since November 2015. The robust federal response to the coronavirus suggests that the emergency could have been avoided, said Lauren McGowan, senior director of Ending Homelessness and Poverty at the United Way of King County.
“I think it’s significantly more money than we have ever had and had we ever had this much money we might not have the homelessness crisis that we do,” McGowan said. “It is exciting, and it is needed, but more will be needed given the scale of people behind in rent who are still not working.”
McGowan is worried about people who took on debt to pay for rent because programs weren’t available or open to them or moved out of their old units with rent debt still hanging over their heads. Most rent assistance programs aren’t designed to help in those cases.
“That is a population we are going to have to come up with policy and programmatic solutions,” McGowan said.
Editor’s Note: On June 8, Emerald reader Celeste Eustis notes — “A really important piece of information for tenants dealing with a rent debt as the moratorium ends, is that they have the ability to propose a payment plan to their landlord, and get in writing an agreement to make small payments towards their rent debt. The terms of this agreement are supposed to reflect what is ‘reasonable’ for the tenant, but are not supposed to have the tenant paying more than a third of their usual monthly rent amount towards the debt each month. A landlord that seeks eviction without going through the process of creating and doing such a payment plan with their tenant, will be told they need to work with their tenant to do a payment plan. The King County Dispute Resolution Center is one of a handful of agencies in King County working with tenants and landlords to navigate this. For more information about payment plans you can contact the King County Dispute Resolution Center at 206-443-9603 or email: DRCinfo@kcdrc.org.”
Ashley Archibald is a freelance journalist with previous work in Real Change, the Santa Monica Daily Press, and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development.
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