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. Continue reading “Eviction Moratorium Set to Expire at End of Month, Putting Tenants Statewide at Risk”