by Jack Russillo
While Washington’s statewide eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of June, Seattle’s eviction ban was extended last week through the end of September. This follows passage of other City Council legislation designed to help residents cope with recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday, June 18, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city’s eviction moratorium, which applies to both residential and commercial properties, would continue until Sept. 30. Earlier in the month, the Seattle City Council adopted other bills that give certain renters more protections, such as implementing a ban on school-year evictions for school workers and families with children and prohibiting evictions for nonpayment of rent due to financial hardship during the pandemic.
According to the most recent census survey data, about one in seven renters in Washington State feel that they are currently behind on paying rent, with Black (21.9%) and Hispanic (21%) populations disproportionately feeling financial difficulty staying caught up on rent. Only 9.8% of white renters throughout the state, however, feel that they are not caught up on paying for their housing. Additionally, 19.8% of households in the state with children under the age of 18 in the home responded to the survey that they felt they were behind on rental payments, while only 7.1% of households without children present felt they were behind on paying their rent.
Durkan’s extension of the eviction ban comes at an important time, less than two weeks before the city’s moratorium was set to expire. Gov. Jay Inslee has yet to indicate whether he will be extending Washington’s eviction moratorium, which is also scheduled to end at the end of the month. More than 150 different organizations and over a thousand individual advocates have called on Inslee to extend the statewide eviction ban.
“First of all, the victories belong to the rank-and-file workers, labor union members, and socialists who really fought for all those pieces of legislation,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant in a phone interview with the Emerald. “The eviction moratorium extensions that we have seen have been last-minute proclamations, and they’ve been purely a result of renters mobilizing.”
As Seattle’s moratorium is extended for the fifth time since last March, late fees and other charges due to nonpayment of rent are not allowed during that period. Durkan’s announcement notes that tenants “are still legally obligated to pay rent during the moratorium,” but also that “landlords are encouraged to offer flexible payment plans.”
Residential tenants who receive an eviction notice during the moratorium should contact the Renting in Seattle hotline at 206‐684‐5700 or submit a complaint online.
Once the City’s eviction moratorium ends, Ordinance 126075 will take effect. This law provides more tenant protections for the first six months after the eviction ban is lifted. The act’s provision include allowing a renter to claim a defense against eviction if they can demonstrate financial hardship due to the pandemic. Currently, this would protect tenants from evictions through March 31, 2022.
In her announcement, Durkan also ordered City utility companies not to shut off services to customers through December 31, 2021.
Another bill passed in June by the Council, sponsored jointly by Councilmembers Sawant and Tammy Morales, closes a loophole in tenant protections that landlords have used in the past to evict tenants without providing a justification. This new legislation requires landlords to offer tenants in fixed term leases the right to renew their lease, unless the landlord has a valid reason under city law.
“This law will prevent eviction and displacement and will reduce the uncertainty that tens of thousands of Seattle tenants face every year. It’s a victory for renters who otherwise face the uncertainty of having to move every time their lease expires,” Sawant said in a press release after the legislation was passed. “We know the big evictors in Seattle are corporate landlords, not mom-and-pop landlords who own one or two units, so today’s victory is a blow against the big landlords.”
By the end of June, Sawant said she would hold hearings in the City Council’s Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee on two additional pieces of housing legislation: one that requires landlords to provide a six-month notice before increasing rent and another that forces landlords to pay tenants for relocation costs if the tenant is forced out due to rent increases. These rent-centric bills come on the heels of the average Seattle rent being raised an average of 3.5% each month over the first five months of 2021, compounding the pressures of the region’s most volatile housing market as it recovers from the pandemic.
“This is what happens when you have a market that builds not housing but construction units in order to fulfill the insatiable greed for profit, for corporate landlords, and not for housing affordability,” said Sawant. “And so we saw that crisis developing even before the pandemic and extend a little bit during the pandemic. And then you saw a lot of working people experience either a loss of job or loss of income in general and they have now been forced to accumulate rental debt to the tune of thousands of dollars. And we’re seeing that nationwide. As soon as there was even a whisper of recovery, we’ve seen corporate landlords now jacking up rent.”
Tricia Wittman-Todd is one of the “mom-and-pop landlords” that Sawant refers to. She’s a landlord in Seattle who has owned a single family home in Beacon Hill for about 20 years and has rented it out to various groups over the years, including a new tenant group that moved in during the pandemic once a prior tenant had saved up enough money to buy a home elsewhere.
“We’ve always had really good luck with our tenants and we’ve met some really wonderful people, all sorts of different people,” said Wittman-Todd in a phone interview. “We’ve always tried to keep our rent low to cover our costs and what not, but not to necessarily make the rent go up to the market price. One of the things we’ve actually been thrilled about is that a huge percentage of the people who have rented from us have eventually bought a house of their own.”
“I’ve read recently that a lot of landlords are selling their rentals, because they’re pretty much saying that if they don’t get rent, they can’t pay the mortgage, but they can sell the rental for some crazy amount because it’s Seattle,” said Wittman-Todd. “And then that takes another rental off the market. So, I think you have to help out the landlord. You have to look at it as an industry, just as you would with the car industry or any other industry. How can we do this so we’re not rewarding the rich?”
“There’s concern for people who have to pay their mortgage on those buildings or they have to do upkeep or replace the roof or something like that,” Wittman-Todd said. “And so I would support the efforts of the City, the County, and the federal government to make money available so that people can pay their rent money and their mortgage, so that they can get subsidies and other assistance if they need it. Otherwise, I think we’re just going to say that it’s over and let’s go change back to reality, but the reality is that many, many people used up all their savings and they used up everything they had and they’re not getting anything back. And all the while they’re paying to eat and live and drive around. So, continuing the moratorium for a longer period of time is a good thing.”
Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
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