by Ashley Archibald
Washington’s statewide eviction moratorium expires on June 30, putting large numbers of low-income and vulnerable residents at risk of eviction even if they are struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
State and local governments stepped in to prevent evictions by passing new tenant rights bills while the pandemic raged in Washington. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into rental assistance programs, largely from the federal government’s massive spending plan passed under the Trump administration.
The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March under the Biden administration, will add to those numbers.
But the need is huge.
King County’s renters owe an average of $ 4,750 in re-leases, the highest in Washington state, according to the National Equity Atlas. That number comes after the tens of millions of dollars of rental subsidies injected in the fall.
But the potential avalanche of evictions is about more than just money, Seattle city council member Tammy Morales said at a May 25 meeting. Morales introduced new laws that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants who had run into financial difficulties due to the pandemic.
“This is a systemic problem caused by generations of divestment into colored communities, by racist housing policies that persecute us to this day, and it is really a problem of justice with deep classicist and racist roots that we need to solve.” . To do this, we have to take some bold action, ”said Morales.
According to a survey by the US Census Bureau conducted April 28 through May 10, an estimated 139,271 Washington households were unconfident that they would be able to raise rent for the coming month, and another 131,217 had little confidence that they will could. An estimated 30,571 households said they were very likely to be evicted in the next two months.
A separate fact sheet from the National Equity Atlas estimates that 34% of Washington tenants have rental debts and face eviction. The burden falls disproportionately on black and Latino households – 78% of black households and 71% of Latino households that rent are at risk of eviction, compared with 28% of white households.
In King County alone, officials estimated in the fall of 2020 that approximately 60,000 households were considered “at risk,” meaning they earned 50% or less of the median income in the area and paid a significant portion of their income for housing costs.
These households are entitled to rent subsidy from the county which would cover the rent for one year including future rent payments for three months. The county has opened two rounds of rental assistance applications totaling $ 190 million, but county officials acknowledge that even that amount will not be enough to meet the needs of identified tenants.
Tenants facing high debts spoke at the launch of the Stay Housed, Stay Healthy campaign, which urged more tenant protection in Seattle and King Counties. A 27-year-old said he couldn’t believe how much the additional rent was.
“I have to file for bankruptcy,” they said.
Another spoke of increasing mental health problems and incredible anxiety caused by debt. A third said she had to cut her budget on food for herself and her service dog and eventually ration medication. She was still falling behind.
King County Councilor Girmay Zahilay, who represents South King County, recalled the feeling when Governor Jay Inslee announced the nationwide shutdown in March. It was one of the toughest days of his life.
“My inbox has been flooded with scared King County residents,” Zahilay told the Zoom audience. People lost their jobs and their health insurance. But thanks to the moratorium, their accommodation was largely secure.
“As soon as the eviction moratorium ends, we will quickly move from a COVID crisis to an eviction crisis,” he warned.
Efforts to prevent this result are in full swing.
As the June 30 deadline approaches, municipalities have rushed to adopt the tenant protection that proponents have long wanted. The state has enforced an eviction law for “just reasons”, which means that landlords cannot terminate a lease on a month-to-month basis without a specific reason. King County introduced a “just cause” law for unincorporated portions of the county, which its sponsors believe is more robust than the state measure, and added a provision to protect tenants on fixed-term leases.
Seattle, which has had “just reasons” protections that have been in place for years on monthly leases for years, banned landlords from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent for at least six months after the COVID-19 emergency formally ended. This is in addition to the existing ban on winter evictions. A lawyer right has also been introduced for tenants facing eviction – according to the Housing Justice Project (HJP), which provides legal advice on eviction cases, only 10% of tenants have a lawyer when they appear in court compared to about 90% of tenants landlords.
And Seattle City Council is pushing for more.
In addition to Morales ‘bill, the Committee on Sustainability and Tenants’ Rights has passed a measure providing legal defense to families with school-age children and school staff during school hours. The committee also passed a bill that would require landlords to offer tenants fixed-term leases unless they have a reason not to.
All three laws are expected to be presented to the entire city council on June 7th.
Tenants and landlords spoke to the council during the public statement. The former thanked committee members for the legislation while denouncing changes aimed at weakening the bills. The latter said landlords had not been brought to the table and smaller property owners could end up getting out of the rental business.
An owner moving into their property or selling a property is one of three ways people can be forced to leave a property under the eviction moratorium, said Edmund Witter, senior attorney for the King County Bar Association. He heads HJP.
Tenants may also be evicted if they present a “significant and immediate risk to the health, safety or property of others” under Inslee’s order, and unauthorized tenants may also be forced to leave.
Witter calls the sales exemption “a big loophole”.
“There is no real requirement that an owner has to sell or move in,” Witter said in an interview in February. At that time, of the 76 cases known to him in which the owner announced his intention to sell, only ten were listed.
Data compiled by HJP shows that landlords requested evictions 356 times between April 10, 2020 and April 5, 2021. Of those cases, 186 came from South Seattle zip codes, unincorporated parts of King County, and South King County cities such as Auburn, Burien, Covington, Des Moines, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Kent, Maple Valley, Renton, Seattle, and Tukwila.
By early May, that number had risen to 419 evictions, 55% of which were successfully executed. Most cases were attributed to tenancy violations or behavior, 146 were however due to the owner’s intention to sell or occupy.
Proponents fear that evictions will increase at the end of the moratorium, flooding courts and exacerbating the existing homelessness crisis.
Seattle and King Counties have been in a state of emergency for homelessness since November 2015. The federal government’s robust response to the coronavirus suggests the emergency could have been avoided, said Lauren McGowan, senior director of Ending Homelessness and Poverty at the United Way of King District.
“I think it’s way more money than we’ve ever had, and if we had ever had that much money, we might not have had the homelessness crisis we’re having,” said McGowan. “It’s exciting and needed, but given the size of the people who are still out of work, more is needed.”
McGowan worries about people who went into debt to pay rent because programs were unavailable, unavailable to them, or moved out of their old apartments with the rental debt hanging over their heads. Most rental assistance programs are not designed to help in these cases.
“This is a population for which we need to develop political and programmatic solutions,” said McGowan.
Ashley Archibald is a freelance journalist with previous roles at Real Change, the Santa Monica Daily Press, and the Union Democrat. Her main focus is on politics and economic development.
📸 Featured Image: Photo by Aaron Souza on Unsplash.
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