By Erica C. Barnett
Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit that runs shelter and feeding programs and provides supplies to people sleeping outside, sued to evict one of the homeless women living at its Re:Novo transitional housing building in West Seattle at the height of the pandemic, arguing that the group was exempt from local renter protections because their work helping and housing homeless people is “incidental” to their primary mission—proselytizing and promoting “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Last week, a state appeals court rejected the last of UGM’s arguments against Re:Novo resident Rebecca Bauer, whom the organization started trying to evict in March 2020, shortly after the state and local eviction moratoriums began.
The ruling, which prevents UGM’s eviction motion from showing up in tenant screening reports, concludes UGM’s two-year-long effort to evict Bauer, and contrasts the nonprofit with other religious housing and shelter programs operating in Seattle, such as Catholic Housing Services and Mercy Housing, which complied with the state and local bans on evictions during the pandemic. The group can seek to evict Bauer in the future, but has not tried to do so since last year.
Bauer moved into Re:Novo in July 2018, after moving to Seattle from Minnesota. She found out about the program from UGM’s Hope shelter in Kent. When she asked about the program, she told PubliCola “they said, ‘This is a Christian program,’ and I was like, ‘Hold up, first of all, I’m not a Christian,'” Bauer said. “And they told me, ‘that’s no problem.'”
In its formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed)), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans.
Bauer moved in to her new apartment—a $500-a-month “apodment” style unit that shared a kitchen and common area with four other rooms—in 2018, but didn’t sign her housing agreement until the following year. That agreement, amended by a staffer to exempt Bauer from program requirements like mandatory church attendance and religious counseling, was at the heart of UGM’s case to evict her. It says the length of the Re:Novo program is “one to two years … decided on a case-by-case basis for each resident.”
Re:Novo’s rules go far beyond a typical shelter or housing program. In addition to a ban on alcohol and “addictive drugs” (a category that, for UGM, includes medication to treat opiate addiction as well as poppy seeds) Re:Nov bans women living at the building from having any sexual relationships, watching movies rated PG-13 or R-rated movies, participating in “occult activity,” and leaving their rooms without “proper clothing,” including “bras underneath their clothes.”
The program also requires residents to attend services at Trinity West Seattle, a conservative church that believes in heterosexual marriage, with the wife serving in “submission” to her husband, as the only “normative pattern of sexual relations for men and women.” Bauer said that on several occasions, a program staffer asked invasive questions about her dating life, implying she was a lesbian. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court declined to take up UGM’s appeal in a discrimination case filed in 2017 by a lawyer the group refused to hire after discovering he was in a same-sex relationship.
The eviction notice came at a difficult time for Bauer. Since moving to Seattle, she had started to get back on her feet. With the help of the YWCA, which featured her as a speaker at its annual luncheon in 2019, she got her license as a certified nursing assistant and went to work at the Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle, “which I loved because it was something new. I had always worked in nursing homes, and [the VA] was completely different. It was so exciting.”
Then COVID hit. Bauer got sick, landing in emergency room three times, and on March 30, 2020, UGM told her she had to be out by May. Their initial explanation was that she had failed to comply with program requirements by leaving her room at least once to cook food while she was sick and waiting for her COVID test results, putting the safety of other residents at risk.
Later, in a formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans. UGM’s eviction motion also claimed that Bauer was rude to staff, moved to a downstairs unit without permission, and left a stove burner on, and that her behavior ultimately forced UGM to abandon the entire half of the building where Bauer lived, leaving several units vacant.
These conditions, UGM argued, constituted an “imminent threat” to the health and safety of other tenants and staff, one of the only explicit exemptions to the city’s eviction ban.
UGM did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement responding to PubliCola’s questions about the lawsuit, UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor focused on Bauer’s alleged health and safety violations.
“The entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.”—UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor
“The Mission offered multiple times to help relocate Ms. Bauer to a more suitable housing situation, which she repeatedly declined,” Taylor said. “Most of the participants in the Re:novo recovery program are highly vulnerable, often fleeing domestic violence or recovering from addiction and susceptible to relapse. Ms. Bauer’s conduct put others at risk and the Mission felt that legal action was the only remaining option for protecting other program participants.”
Although Bauer vehemently denied all of those charges, both in court and in a lengthy conversation with PubliCola—in particular, she said her housing manager told her she could move into a unit another woman was vacating if she helped to clean it out—UGM didn’t actually make the “imminent threat” argument a centerpiece of its lawsuit.
Instead, they argued that they didn’t have to comply with the eviction bans because the housing UGM provides is just “incidental” to its central purpose of “proclaim[ing] the gospel and love of Jesus Christ to women.” As UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor put it in his argument before a King County Superior Court judge last year, “the entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.”
Bauer’s attorney, Dashiell Milliman-Jarvis with the Housing Justice Project, said UGM weakened its own case by making several contradictory legal claims about the nature of the Re:Novo program. “They were going on all these theories, like ‘the lease term is ended, so we’re allowed to evict,’ and ‘we’re not subject to the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act because we’re a religious service,’ and ‘we’re not subject to the Just Cause Eviction rules that were passed statewide or the Seattle eviction moratorium because we’re not a housing program,'” Milliman-Jarvis said.
In the initial ruling, Judge Ruhl agreed with UGM that Re:Novo was exempt from the state landlord-tenant act, because it constituted a shelter that required residents to follow certain program requirements. At the same time, he said, “I just don’t see anyplace where” Seattle’s eviction ban “carves out an exception that would allow UGM to evict Ms. Bauer.” The judge didn’t buy UGM’s argument that the housing it provided was just “incidental” to its religious program, agreeing that even though Re:Novo does include services such as church and counseling, it “is still primarily providing housing, and that housing is not subordinate to those other services.”
Looking back at her smiling photos from the 2019 YWCA event, where she was hailed for “overcoming homelessness and domestic abuse,” Bauer says she felt like saying, “‘you stupid fool,’ because I really believed in people. I lost that for a while, and I feel like I’m trying to get back there.”