Tag: evictions

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

Despite Eviction Moratorium, Renters Are Still Being Evicted

By Erica C. Barnett

Renters across Washington state have existed in a kind of financial and legal limbo since mid-March, when Governor Jay Inslee issued the first statewide eviction moratorium, declaring that the temporary measure would “help reduce economic hardship and related life, health, and safety risks to those members of our workforce impacted by layoffs and substantially reduced work hours or who are otherwise unable to pay rent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At the time, no one knew how long the pandemic would continue or the impact it would have on the state and national economy. Since then, Inslee has extended the moratorium four more times, most recently in October, when he set a new expiration date of December 31.

But despite the moratorium, commonly referred to as an “eviction ban,” renters are still being evicted. Last month, nearly 40 people were evicted through the court system in King County, up from just 8 in April. (We know the numbers for King County because they’re tracked by the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, but a similar trend is almost certainly happening across the state). Added to that are an unknown number of people who are informally evicted through methods that, while not technically evictions, still have the same effect, their numbers never counted in the total of people forced to move—or made homeless—during a worldwide pandemic.

One reason more renters are being kicked out, tenant advocates say, is that Inslee has gradually added more and more exemptions to the “ban.” Most consequentially, in June, Inslee added a section to the moratorium in June allowing landlords to give tenants’ 60 days notice that they plan to sell a unit or move into it.

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Jim Baumgart, a senior policy advisor to the governor, said the exemption is intended to help people who own multiple properties and need to move into one or sell “because they don’t want to be a landlord anymore, or because their family’s been materially affected by COVID and they need that money.” For example, people in the military, who move around often, might need to move back to their hometown and have no choice but to move into a house they had been renting out, or a landlord who owned just one or two rental units might need to sell a property to stay afloat.

The Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents rental property owners and has been critical of the eviction moratorium, argues that the sale or move-in exemption provides a necessary escape hatch for the smallest landlords. Kyle Woodring, RHA’s director of government affairs, says the RHA has been hearing from “more people working through the process of selling their property” than usual, because their income (from rent or other sources) has dried up and “they need to get some cash out of that property.

“It’s easy for local governments and state governments to protect tenants, and much harder to protect people who pay mortgages and the lending institutions, because those are generally federally regulated,” Woodring said. “Short of giant bailouts, I think we’re going to see more and more people looking to sell.” Continue reading “Despite Eviction Moratorium, Renters Are Still Being Evicted”

Tenants Describe Worsening Conditions at Aurora Motel as Owner Signs Agreement with SPD

 

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, five days after the owner of a dilapidated Aurora Avenue motel, the Everspring Inn, left notices on tenants’ doors telling them they had to vacate their rooms immediately, the Seattle Police Department signed off on a “nuisance property” abatement agreement that the owner, Ryan Kang, used as justification after the fact for displacing his tenants, some of whom had lived at the motel for years.

The papers he taped on tenants’ doors were not official eviction notices, nor, attorneys for the tenants say, were they legal; even if Kang and SPD had both signed an abatement agreement when he began forcing his tenants out, he would have had to provide them with notice, relocation assistance, and sufficient time to find new places to live. Nothing in the law allows a landlord, even one who runs a dangerous or substandard property, to simply tell his tenants to get out.

Tenant advocates, and many of the tenants themselves, agree that the Everspring is not a good place to live. Black mold is visible in many of the units, and water sometimes drips from the ceilings. Fights are common. But attorneys for the Public Defender Association, which is representing some of the tenants, say even a justified nuisance agreement can’t provide legal cover for kicking tenants out without proper notice or restitution, and they argue that SPD Police Chief Carmen Best made a serious error of judgment when she signed an agreement after several local media outlets, including this site, reported that Kang was illegally evicting tenants, towing their cars, and shutting off their hot water in the middle of a pandemic.

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Lisa Etter Carlson, co-founder and director of women’s health initiatives at the Aurora Commons, a nonprofit that helps sex workers and people experiencing homelessness in the neighborhood, said she was surprised when media coverage didn’t jostle the city of Seattle into action. “I kind of assumed that surely, with all the press, with the absurdity and inhumanity of turning these precious people out during a pandemic, during an eviction moratorium, surely someone out there was doing  something,” she said. “And it just became clear that no no one was. They never called. They never showed up. We never received any assistance.”

Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, says SDCI is reviewing 16 complaints from Everspring residents—complaints that those residents could use as a defense against a formal eviction proceeding. At that point, the city would also begin issuing notices to the property owner, Kang, for violating the city’s just-cause eviction ordinance. Since the evictions have all been de facto and informal, it’s hard to see how this option is meaningful to the current and former tenants.

And, as Etter Carlson noted, no one from the city has showed up to inspect the site or stop the evictions from happening. For the past week and a half, the only city employees who’ve been consistently on site are members of the Human Services Department’s Navigation Team, bearing offers of shelter—a significant step down from even a crappy motel room, and one that many tenants aren’t willing to consider.

“It’s really challenging when people have had their own apartment for years to then, just all of a sudden, pick up and move to a tiny house or a shelter situation,” Etter Carlson said. “It’s not dignifying.”


Most of the people at the Everspring had nowhere to go; and so, many of them are still there. As of last weekend, nearly a dozen rooms in the Everspring were still occupied, with plywood sheets sitting just outside their doors as a reminder that if they leave their rooms, they will be considered unoccupied, and the security guards will board up their doors with all their possessions inside. As a result, tenants said, they have taken to sitting in each others’ rooms when one of them leaves so that their doors don’t get boarded up while they’re gone.

Stevens, from SDCI, says the department got assurances that Kang was only boarding up “unoccupied” rooms. He added that the city has no authority to order a property owner to open up rooms that are boarded up if no one is living there.

Tenants who were still living at the Everspring over the past weekend said that after he ordered them to leave, Kang hired security guards who roamed the motel’s hallways and locked the newly installed gate, preventing tenants from coming and going at will. “One of them tried to jump me because I didn’t want them to come into my room to escort someone to help get her stuff,” tenant Bruce Red recalled. Another tenant, Stephanie Lewis, said one of the guards claimed to be a US marshal, and was “walking around, all geared up with a Taser gun and a bunch of different kinds of mace and pepper spray.” 

Kimberly Harrell, a case worker with REACH, confirmed that one security guard was representing himself as a US marshal, and said, “The behavior of the security there is ridiculous. It’s almost like he’s taunting them or trying to provoke them.” She showed me a text message exchange between that security guard and one of the tenants. “Don’t say I didn’t warn no body,” the message said. The tenant asked him what he meant, and he responded, “U know what I mean. I’ll say this: I will be wearing police patches tonight.”

“I kind of assumed that surely someone out there was doing something. And it just became clear that no no one was. They never called. They never showed up. We never received any assistance.” —Lisa Etter Carlson, Aurora Commons

Lewis, who worked 12-hour days at the front desk for $10 an hour, said that Kang ordered everyone to move their cars from the motel garage or he would have them towed. As a result, “we had to take our car out of the garage and park it on the street.” If they get kicked out, they’ll need to use that car as shelter. 

The Public Defender Association sent a letter last Thursday to Kang’s attorney, E. Chan Lee, demanding that Kang stop removing tenants from his property, turn their utilities back on, and allow people whose rooms were boarded up to get back into those rooms and retrieve their property.

They also wrote to Best and soon-to-be-acting police chief Adrian Diaz directly, expressing outrage that the department signed the order without telling them, after the PDA contacted the department two weeks ago to see if any of the people Kang was kicking out might be eligible for the Co-LEAD program. That program provides motel rooms and case management for people experiencing homelessness who are involved in low-level criminal activity—a description that fits many of the Everspring’s residents.

Their letter to SPD reads, in part:

Accepting for the sake of argument that a serious nuisance situation existed at the Everspring, you must know that (1) people not responsible for those conditions will be forced out onto the street and (2) those responsible for the nuisance conditions will not cease their problematic activity just because they lose their lodging. It is inconceivable, and inexcusable, for you not to have initiated planning with the community partners who could work with this population, and the various city agencies that can provide relocation assistance and homelessness prevention, before you took this action. The city’s departments appear to be working at cross purposes, with zero coordination, and at odds with stated city policies about sheltering/lodging high barrier individuals, finding space and avoiding unnecessary evictions to the street.

Tenants cannot be evicted because of criminal activity that happens on a property unless they were directly involved. A spokeswoman for SPD said the police department was not involved in or aware of the evictions when they began on August 13, and characterized them as requests to tenants that they “voluntarily leave.”

Prachi Dave, the PDA’s legal director, said that while the nuisance order cites “various kinds of criminal activity, there’s no allegation that the people are being removed from their homes right now have engaged in any kind of criminal activity. Having them bear the ramifications of that seems fundamentally unfair.”

Moreover, Dave continued, the police knew that Kang was already evicting tenants illegally when they signed the agreement with him—an agreement he is now using to justify the evictions that took place before it was signed. In his letter responding to the PDA, Lee, Kang’s attorney, said his client was “in fact required to remove all those residing at the property pursuant to our agreement with the Seattle Police Department.” The agreement does note that this should be the ultimate outcome, but it does not give Kang permission to simply tell everyone to leave without notice, due process, or relocation assistance. And, again, it was signed several days after notices went up on tenants’ doors and tenants were told they had to be out right away.

“The fact that SPD entered into this agreement, knowing this was going to be the outcome, and when that outcome was already already unfolding at the time they entered this agreement, is incredibly problematic,” Dave said.

Tenants say that in addition to boarding up rooms with tenants’ property inside, Kang offered some tenants a mere $100, in cash, to leave. Some have taken the money. One such tenant, Eric Border, said he sometimes worked for Kang under the table, “as muscle.” He said he took the money and left because he didn’t feel he had a choice. “He boarded up my door and told me to leave,” he said.

When I talked to Border by phone on Sunday, he said he was walking around, scared and with nowhere to go. He had been living at the Everspring for about three years. “I’m older now and I need a place to stay,” he said. “I have nowhere to take a bath. I just want a place to lay down and wake up so I can be normal.”

Harrell, with REACH, said she was especially appalled to learn, from a story in the Seattle Times, that Kang had received at least $164,000 in “rapid rehousing” assistance from the city of Seattle in 2018, making him the single largest beneficiary of the program. Rapid rehousing is supposed to provide temporary assistance to get people into safe, stable housing—typically in market-rate apartments—until they can pay the full rent themselves. Rent for a room at the Everspring ranged from $1,800 to $2,400 a month, and it was far from safe or stable.

“If the city is paying for something like that, then how come no one checked to make sure things were running properly?” Harrell said. “It’s not fair that he got all this money and didn’t run it the way it should have been run.”

The groups that are trying to help the Evergreen’s tenants, including REACH, the Aurora Commons, and the PDA, say they aren’t asking for anything extraordinary—just some relocation assistance and time to find the tenants a new place to stay and get them connected with case management and other support. The tenants, too, say that’s what they want.

“I hope I can wake up tomorrow and they’ll say, ‘Here’s your relocation money,'” Lewis said. “Basically, all we want is to be compensated, to be relocated so we can go on with our lives.”

Why Does This Seattle Affordable Housing Provider Evict So Many Tenants?

Image result for lihi housing seattleThis story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Private landlords aren’t the only ones taking tenants to court for unpaid rent in Seattle. As “Losing Home” points out (the September 2018 report on eviction from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project), nonprofit housing providers are also evicting low-income renters, often for what appear to be very small amounts of rent, typically less than $1,000. Of all the nonprofit providers that turned up in the groups’ survey of evictions in Seattle in 2017, one—the Low Income Housing Institute—stood out, not only for initiating more evictions than any other provider, but for charging legal fees that often far exceeded the amount of rent a tenant owed, according to the report.

“[I]n cases where the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent, the median rent demanded was $551 and the median legal costs added to the tenant’s balance was $761.25,” the report states. (Tenants who lose eviction cases, including tenants who live in nonprofit-run housing, typically have to pay attorneys’ fees in addition to whatever they owe their landlords. These fees are not capped and are frequently more than the amount of unpaid rent a tenant owes.) “Given that LIHI specializes in providing affordable housing to low-income tenants, the imposition of an additional $761.25 to the tenant’s balance is substantial and likely to interfere with the tenant’s ability to find new housing in the future.” In 2017, the report notes, LIHI initiated 54 eviction cases in Seattle over unpaid rent, and ended up evicting all but eight of those tenants.

“When we look at the overall eviction rates, LIHI is a lot higher than all the other” nonprofits, says Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. “They evicted pretty much everyone they actually started an eviction against.” According to the data used in the report, the amount evicted tenants owed LIHI ranged from $49 to $1,250. “In all cases in which the Low Income Housing Institute sought back rent at or below $500, the tenant was evicted,” the report concludes.

LIHI director Sharon Lee says the organization “go[es] out of our way to help people by getting our social managers or caseworkers to help them find funds so that they can pay the rent, and we’re very generous when it comes to payment plans.” But, she adds, the organization has to draw lines. “Even if you are very sympathetic, if you let a whole group of people [go without paying rent], and then they tell their neighbors, ‘I’m not paying the rent,’ it will start affecting our ability to operate our housing. If we want to be developing more housing, we can’t say to our funders, ‘The budget is just out of whack and we need more subsidies.’”

It’s notable, however, that other nonprofit housing providers that serve formerly homeless clients, such as Pioneer Human Services, Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing, Services of Western Washington, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), rarely appear to evict tenants for failing to pay rent. According to court records, DESC evicted seven people in 2017, all for violations unrelated to rent, including violence against staff, dealing drugs and trafficking in stolen goods. “We try to come up with solutions to avoid people losing their housing,” says DESC director Daniel Malone. “We regard housing loss as a failure of ours, not just of the person.” Like Lee, Malone says that unpaid rent adds up and can eat into his organization’s bottom line; however, Malone says DESC is “not about to kick someone out on the streets [simply] because of unpaid rent.”

Lee contends that neither the raw data nor the eviction filings themselves reflect every reason for an eviction. “It could be nonpayment of rent, it could be breaking the lease, it could be violence, [or] in some cases, it could be housekeeping—if the unit fails a government inspection,” Lee says. “We also have people who intentionally do damage [or] who refuse to follow direction when it comes to pest control or bedbugs.” At the request of Seattle magazine, Lee looked at three specific cases, chosen at random from the 54 nonpayment cases listed in the report. For all three, Lee cited additional violations that she said contributed to LIHI’s decision to evict, including “violent and threatening behavior” toward other tenants, unauthorized guests and refusal to accept case management.

“We try not to evict people, because we don’t want to have people return to homelessness,” Lee says. “But we also know that some people, particularly young adults, may not work out in one place, and they may go somewhere else and have it be a good fit. We have housed people who have been evicted from DESC. It’s not like only one agency takes the ‘tough’ people.”

See my story on Seattle’s eviction court here.

As City Moves Away from Eviction Prevention, Report Highlights Inequities in Who Gets Evicted, and Why

A new report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project on who gets evicted in Seattle, and why, concludes that not only are women and people of color more likely to get evicted than white men, but that they often lose their homes over very small amounts of money—just a few hundred dollars in late rent, which is usually compounded by the addition of court and attorney’s fees. Among all the people evicted for failure to pay rent on time, more than half (52.3 percent) owed one month’s rent or less, and more than three-quarters (76.6 percent) owed less than $2,500 ($1,236 on average.) Because evicted tenants are generally required to pay additional court costs, attorneys’ fees, and other non-rent charges on top of the rent they owe, the median court judgment was $3,129.

Sarah Stewart, a longtime Seattle resident who has been living in her car since she was evicted this past March, said at a press conference today that she lost her apartment, in a low-income building, because her landlord miscalculated her income, which varies from month to month based on her ability to work. Stewart has a degenerative illness that causes pain and fatigue. Despite her family’s efforts to help her pay “the enormous amounts they demanded,” she eventually ended up in eviction court. “In the end,” she said, “the landlord had all the power, and not only were they able to evict me, but they also burdened me with over $2,000 in late fees, attorneys’ fees and non-rent fees. In my current situation, there is no way I will ever be able to pay that back.”

The report, “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle,” describes a system heavily weighted in favor of landlords and against tenants, particularly tenants who lack attorneys. The vast majority of people who get evicted (87.5 percent) in Seattle ended up homeless (a category that includes couch surfing or living in shelters in addition to unsheltered homelessness) for the exact reason you might expect: Once you’ve got an eviction on your record, it can be nearly impossible to find someone willing to rent to you. 

Eviction prevention programs in Seattle are virtually nonexistent—in sharp contrast to other cities such as New York, where the Bronx Housing Court, which offers a one-stop shop for rental assistance programs, has helped prevent evictions in 86 percent of cases. (Other cities also give tenants sore time to pay what they owe—in Seattle, the eviction process can begin as soon as you’re three days late on your rent—and offer more discretion to judges to work out deals between landlords and tenants that allow people to stay in their homes). This can be traced, in part, to a 2016 report that recommended diverting funds away from eviction prevention and into programs to help people who are already homeless; that report ended up being the basis of the city’s “Pathways Home” strategy for addressing homelessness.

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According to the report, “The Focus Strategies report acknowledged that ‘[t]raditional prevention generally targets households who have their own rental unit and have received an eviction notice,’ but then discouraged such an approach without providing any support for their recommendation. The Focus Strategies report claimed that ‘since most people do not become homeless straight from an eviction, it does not make sense to prioritize sheltering that group of people who are facing eviction; however, this overlooks the collateral consequences of eviction such as poor health, family instability, and higher financial strain on the shelter system.

The problem with ignoring people until they get evicted, Housing Justice Project attorney Ed Witter said today, is that it costs far more—between $15,000 and $17,000—to put someone up in a shelter for a year than it does to pay the $100 or $1,200 or $2,000 that separates them from eviction.  “We don’t help [people] until they’ve lost their housing, and we know this isn’t the most efficient way,” Witter said. A client who lived in low-income housing had just been evicted over $15.67 in late rent, Witter continued. “How did we get to the point that tenants are losing their housing over 15 dollars and 67 cents?”

Read the whole report, which includes detailed demographic data on who gets evicted and why as well as policy recommendations, here.