Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, and is reprinted here under an agreement.
by Jack Russillo
On Wednesday, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales proposed legislation to close a legal loophole that allows landlords to evict tenants without providing a justification.
The legislation, which Morales is calling the first in a series of “Tenants’ Bill of Rights” legislation, would bar landlords from evicting tenants without giving a reason, and would automatically convert all fixed-term leases (those that last for a specific period, such as six months or a year) into month-to-month leases once they expire.
Under Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance, which passed in 1980, landlords must provide one of 18 reasons, or “just causes,” to terminate a month-to-month tenancy, but those who have a fixed-term lease are not protected. This means that if a lease is about to expire, the landlord does not need to provide a reason to not renew the tenant’s lease. Landlords can exploit this loophole by offering short-term leases that they can fail to renew without giving any reason, leaving the tenant legally unprotected.
“Something that was designed to protect tenants has in fact missed the mark, leaving many vulnerable to discriminatory and retaliatory behaviors,” said Tram Tran-Larsen, the community engagement manager for the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project. Although Seattle was the first city in King County to adopt just-cause legislation, Tran-Larsen said, the city has the second highest rate of no-cause evictions in King County.
Morales’ legislation would eliminate the loophole, requiring landlords to either renew a lease or convert the initial lease to a month-to-month contract once the initial lease expired.
“We know that when this moratorium ends, there will be thousands of people getting kicked out and through no fault of their own,” Morales said. “Nobody expected a pandemic and nobody expected that so many people would be losing their jobs, their incomes, and their health insurance, which could be tied to their employer. There’s a real crisis coming if we don’t do something to make sure that people are protected.”
Arianna Laureano is a Seattle renter who has been evicted multiple times. Speaking at Morales’ event, Laureano said she has only managed to stay in her University District apartment thanks to the statewide eviction moratorium. Her lease expired during the pandemic, she said, and “once the eviction moratorium is lifted, [my landlord] will give me an eviction with no cause and I will have to go to court. But if they don’t close that just-cause loophole then it won’t matter.”
More than half of Seattle’s residents are renters. Losing Home, a 2018 report by the Housing Justice Project and the Seattle Women’s Commission, found that just 12.5 percent of people who were evicted in Seattle in 2017 were able to eventually find stable housing, with more than 55 percent ending up unsheltered or in transitional housing. Eviction also forced low-income tenants out of Seattle: 43.5 percent of people evicted in 2017 ended up moving outside the city leaving the city. The report also found that evictions disproportionately affected BIPOC and LGBTQ communities.
“Right now, there’s a lot of discrimination that exists in the system just because there isn’t a system of accountability set up for the landlords,” said Laureano. “People like me can’t hold them accountable so it happens all the time.
“Our housing market is a brutal arena and disenfranchised Americans are often the victims of that arena,” said Laureano. “Between a solid just-cause protection and a broader tenants’ bill of rights, we’re establishing a framework of a system that allows disenfranchised Americans to actually stand up for their rights and I couldn’t be happier about that.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected BIPOC communities, two out of three Black or Indigenous renters in Seattle were rent-burdened, according to a study from Prosperity Now. According to the study, in Seattle, Black and Native American households make less than half as much, on average, as white households.
“Access to safe housing and the security of [housing] should not be discarded as a matter of landlord versus tenants’ rights. It’s a racial justice issue,” said Tran-Larsen. “The majority of landlords are white and people of color disproportionately face eviction.” Black, Indigineous, immigrant, and other communities of color have been hardest hit by the pandemic, Tran-Larsen said, and now they are most at risk as the eviction moratorium comes to an end.
Morales said she hopes to pass the legislation by the end of May—one month before the statewide eviction moratorium is scheduled to expire.