By Leo Brine
As the state begins to lift its pandemic restrictions, housing advocates worry that one restriction is ending prematurely.
Washington’s eviction moratorium, which Governor Jay Inslee established at the start of the pandemic, is set to expire on June 30. The bill established a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction—the first law in the nation to do so—but included a Republican amendment establishing the expiration date.
Now, as counties begin begin distributing rent assistance, advocates worry about a vicious cycle in which tenants get evicted because their assistance didn’t arrive on time, and can’t hire attorneys to defend them because legal assistance programs aren’t up and running yet. Advocates are asking Inslee to extend the moratorium so the state can hire and train lawyers, set up mediation programs and properly distribute rent assistance to tenants and landlords.
If the moratorium is lifted, it will disproportionately impact people of color and people with disabilities. Census data shows that 34 percent of Latino/Hispanic households and 16 percent of Black households are behind on rent in Washington.
To prevent hundreds of thousands of people from losing their homes after the moratorium ends, the legislature passed a trio of eviction prevention bills this session. One established a list of 16 “just cause” reasons landlords can give in order to evict a tenant (HB 1236); another will fund state rental assistance programs (HB 1277); and one allows landlords to apply for rental assistance funds and provides a right to counsel for indigent tenants facing eviction, similar to public defenders in criminal cases (SB 5160).
When the House voted on the last bill, they also included an amendment by Rep. Michelle Caldier (R-26, Port Orchard) stipulating that the eviction moratorium is up at the end of this month. When Inslee signed the bill, he left in Caldier’s amendment, signaling he agreed with setting a hard deadline.
The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance is now lobbying Inslee to extend the moratorium so the state can get all its eviction protection programs in place. “All we need is time,” Michele Thomas,W LIHA’s Advocacy and Policy Director, said. The protections the state put in place this year are great, she added, but “if the governor does not extend the moratorium, a lot of the work will be for not.”
Thomas said Inslee should end the moratorium on a county-by-county basis, depending on how prepared each county is to handle eviction cases, similar to how the state has lifted COVID restrictions.
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Democrats have also called on the governor to extend the moratorium. On Wednesday, June 17, Rep. Jamila Taylor (D-30, Federal Way), the chair of the House Democrats’ Black Caucus, sent a letter to the governor asking him to extend the moratorium.
Taylor also wants to see the moratorium lifted in counties who are adequately prepared to dispense rent assistance and provide legal representation to tenants, “so that no families are homeless,” she said in a statement. “We’re at the two-yard line. Now is not the time for us to leave families without this crucial safety net.”
If the moratorium is lifted, it will disproportionately impact people of color and people with disabilities. Census data shows that 34 percent of Latino/Hispanic households and 16 percent of Black households are behind on rent in Washington. Taylor said that by allowing the moratorium to expire, Washington would be taking a major step back in improving equity—something the Democratic legislature touted as a priority for the 2021 session.
King County Housing Justice Project Manager Edmund Witter told PubliCola that despite Caldier’s amendment, Gov. Inslee could extend the moratorium. (King County’s Housing Justice Project, which provide legal counsel to tenants, is one of several such groups across the state.) All the amendment did was say the current iteration of the moratorium must end on June 30; it did not limit the governor’s to extend the moratorium in response to the pandemic emergency, Witter said.
However, the governor’s emergency powers run out on June 30, when the official state of emergency ends, creating a hard deadline for Inslee to make a decision. Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said the governor’s office has not decided yet whether to extend the moratorium.
If the moratorium does end on June 30, Witter is concerned that Washington’s courts will be overwhelmed with eviction cases. “There’s just no plan,” for how courts will deal with cases, Witter said.
“If a tenant doesn’t know whether or not they’re going to get rental assistance, how are they going to know what terms are reasonable to a repayment plan that they’re going to sign onto?How would they know whether or not what they’re signing onto is something they can afford?”—Michele Thomas, Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance
Ideally, eviction cases could be resolved without getting courts involved at all. SB 5160 establishes Eviction Resolution Programs (ERPs) in six counties (Clark, King, Pierce, Thurston, Snohomish and Spokane), using dispute resolution centers to settle landlord-tenant disputes. These programs work by having landlords, tenants, and their lawyers meet with an eviction resolution specialist to reach an agreement to prevent eviction, such as a more forgiving rent repayment plan.
Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) worked on the eviction protection bills during the session. She said many of the tenant protections the legislature passed this year included emergency clauses that put them into effect immediately, including mandatory repayment plans and the just cause eviction bill. (The latter still allows landlords to evict tenants for failing to pay their rent, but requires them to offer tenants a repayment plan 14 days before serving them an eviction notice.)
However, she’s still worried that when the moratorium ends, there won’t be enough attorneys ready to represent tenants in eviction cases and courts won’t have the tools to settle disputes without going to trial.
“We need to make sure that we set up the mediation support for landlords and tenants [and that] we hire those attorneys. A lot of that is not authorized until the state budget goes into effect July 1,” Macri said.
The director of Washington’s Office of Civil Legal Aid (OCLA), James Bamberger, said the program to provide attorneys to tenants facing eviction will not be ready when the moratorium ends. The OCLA is in charge of getting the state’s judicial system stocked with lawyers to represent tenants and have been working on plans for the program since before the bill passed. “I think it’s pretty clear that this program will not be ready, and courts will not be in a position to appoint attorneys in these cases,” Bamberger said.
To prepare, OCLA will contract 52 attorneys from community-based housing nonprofits, like the Northwest Justice Project, to represent tenants. OCLA said it should be easier for smaller counties to hire enough attorneys simply because they have fewer potential clients. However, OCLA estimates that larger jurisdictions, like King and Snohomish Counties, will need a substantial increase in the number of public attorneys.
Bamberger said he expects counties to have nearly enough attorneys by September 30 and to be fully staffed by the end of 2021. So, for the first three months after the moratorium, many tenants won’t have access to legal representation. “I’m very worried about the collateral consequences to the more than 100,000 tenants who are currently behind on their rent and face the prospect of eviction and are substantially compromised without legal representation,” Bamberger said.
According to Census data, roughly 180,000 Washington residents were behind on their rent or mortgage payments at the end of April and beginning of May.
To provide tenants some assistance post-moratorium, OCLA has been providing federal COVID-19 aid to Housing Justice Projects across the state.
Witter said King County should be the best situated to deal with evictions because many of the resources the legislature set up this year, including the right to counsel and rent assistance, have existed in the county for some time. However, his organization’s ability to serve tenants “is really dependent on capacity,” he said. “We have nine attorneys and that’s going to be either a lot or a little depending on the circumstances and how many evictions are going on.”
To help people get back on track with rent, the state Department of Commerce began offering rent assistance to landlords and tenants last August. The US Treasury Department also allocated more than $500 million in rent assistance to the state, 10 counties, and the cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane. The legislature included $687 million in joint federal and state funds for rental assistance in its 2021-23 biennial budget; these funds will go out to counties on July 1, when the next biennium begins.
Witter believes counties have been too slow to get rental assistance out. He worries that Washington counties will receive more applications than they can process, which could result in a massive backlog. “If we have a backlog plus an ending of the moratorium, people are going to get evicted despite the fact that we have [rent assistance] money,” he said.
Michele Thomas, from the Housing Alliance, said getting rental assistance hasn’t been easy and tenants “haven’t received any information about whether or not they qualify or how much money they will get.”
“If a tenant doesn’t know whether or not they’re going to get rental assistance, how are they going to know what terms are reasonable to a repayment plan that they’re going to sign onto?” Thomas added. “How would they know whether or not what they’re signing onto is something they can afford?
Macri said she “can’t imagine that everyone is going to receive rent assistance by June 30.” “We need at least several more weeks into the summer, if not well into the fall to make sure all these protections are hoisted up.” Macri said she’s heard from counties who say they’ve distributed all the rent assistance they have, and their residents still need more. She said that King county is just beginning to get its rent assistance out and has thousands of applications to process.
None of the legislation passed this session prevents landlords from raising rents once the moratorium ends. “That is really scary for a lot of reasons,” Thomas said, including the fact that tenants who have paid their rent throughout the moratorium may not be able to afford an increase right away. Sen. Mona Das (D-47, Kent) proposed a bill that would have limited rent increases after the end of the moratorium (SB 5139), but the Housing and Local Government Committee never took a vote on the bill.
King County opened its rental assistance program on May 17 and has received hundreds of applications. Witter is worried the county won’t be able to process applications fast enough and tenants will end up evicted still waiting to hear about rent assistance. “There’s so much money out there to basically pay off and bail out landlords but it’s unfortunate we still might see people evicted,” Witter said
Rep. Taylor, of the House Democrats’ Black Caucus, also urged the governor in her letter to prohibit rent increases for the remainder of 2021. “Rent increases will push many into our already overwhelmed rental assistance programs and will raise the cost of housing stability,” she wrote.