Homelessness in Seattle is a major issue that many are trying to solve. Yet in my opinion, one of the biggest contributors to homelessness in our great state is never discussed or even considered.
The fact is that in Washington, it is easier to buy a new car after an accident than it is to rent a home if you have an eviction or owe a past landlord.
Imagine driving home one night after dinner with a friend. You give your friend a lift to keep the conversation going. Suddenly, something darts into the road. You swerve to avoid it and collide with another person’s car. Your vehicle is totaled, their vehicle has a big dent and you’ve got whiplash.
What if you were not allowed to get another car until you’d paid every bill in full?
What if, because your friend was in the passenger seat, their car was repossessed to help cover those expenses?
What if they also were not allowed to own another car until those expenses were paid as well and because it’s now on both your records, neither of you can even rent a car or use a car service?
What if neither you nor your friend could pay those bills any time in the near future? What then?
This may sound like a bad joke, but swap housing for cars and it’s the reality for a lot of folks, including teenagers who are barely old enough to vote, let alone establish a rental history, and seniors who are just trying to stay inside.
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In Washington, the law defines a “tenant” as “any person who is entitled to occupy a dwelling unit primarily for living or dwelling purposes under a rental agreement.” Tenants, under the law, are responsible for upholding their end of a lease agreement. Other residents, including adult children, guests and individuals who are unable to legally sign documents, are not.
To ensure that they get paid, it’s common practice for landlords to require that all residents over the age of 18 be included on the lease — that is, to become tenants, not just occupants. This means that every single person is responsible for the future of the lease. If any one of them slips up, they’re all punished with the black mark of eviction.
This serves a dual purpose for landlords. First, they have more potential pockets to mine if the rent is late. Second, it means that they can more effectively screen out “undesirable” tenants, like those with criminal records or who have unstable sources of income, even though the law prohibits source of income discrimination.
RentPrep, an industry website for landlords, even offers step-by-step instructions for how to get adult children and other tenants on a lease as soon as they turn 18 — something they call a “smart business move.”
“It’s certainly legal, and highly recommended, to include a place within the paperwork for the applicant to list all adults and children, as well as their birth dates,” the site reads. “This way, the landlord has all the vital age information on record, and can quickly tell when a child is about to turn 18.”
Many individuals can be caught in this trap. Spouses who have suffered financial abuse leave the relationship only to find no one will rent to them. Senior citizens on a fixed income who aren’t able to contribute much to the rent may still get handed a large bill for cleaning or repairs. Intergeneration households with a primary provider who’s injured on the job may be out on the street and unable to get back into housing. The list goes on.
It creates a vicious cycle. Letting a family member couch-surf? That violates the lease terms — and now everyone in that home joins the thousands of other renters who simply can’t get a place to live.
I know from experience; I moved to Seattle with my family due to sudden illness. When my ex-husband became violent, I fled with my daughter, who is 20 years old and autistic. My landlord would not take us off the lease, nor did they inform us of our legal options to be removed from it. When my ex was late for the third time on his payment, he was evicted — and, legally, so were we. He left; we were left with the bill and an eviction on our records. When I no longer qualified for the housing we had received after leaving the situation, we ended up on the street — all because of a complex web of tenant laws we didn’t know that we needed to know.
A car is considered a luxury, but we can go get another after an accident. No one else in the car is permanently marked. But a home — one of the most basic necessities — can be swiftly taken away and impossible to get back.
Mia Lombardo is an artist and photographer. She is also homeless.
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