Winter months in Seattle are dark, cold and wet — conditions that make it even more dangerous than usual to be surviving outside. A new piece of legislation passed by the Seattle City Council sought to keep more tenants indoors during upcoming winters, but last-minute amendments watered down the original protections and constrained which tenants would feel its effects.
The original proposal, put forward by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, would have banned evictions altogether from November to the end of March, except in certain circumstances, such as unsafe and criminal behavior. It was very similar to France’s trêve hivernale, or “winter truce,” during which landlords cannot evict tenants and utilities cannot cut off their electricity or water.
While some cities with harsh winters, such as Washington, D.C. and Chicago, restrict landlords from putting people outside when conditions are particularly bad — for instance, with a low-temperature threshold — Seattle is the first in the country to outright ban evictions for a season.
A series of amendments introduced by other Seattle councilmembers curbed the original, sweeping bill, limiting it to three months, tacking on income requirements, exempting landlords with four or fewer units and creating the framework for a mitigation fund to compensate landlords who can no longer evict tenants who do not pay rent during those months.
The amendments, some introduced as late as the day prior to the vote, frustrated Sawant, who pointed out that changes such as exempting small landlords were done without evidence that such landlords would be hurt by the legislation.
“It is shocking to see how elected officials demand endless data and justification for even the smallest measure to benefit poor or working-class people, but there are policies pushed forward with no data at all,” Sawant said, “like the sweeps of homeless people.”
The legislation does not take effect immediately, and councilmembers have already said they will revisit the exemption for small landlords if existing data shows it would render the effort largely meaningless. Councilmember Tammy Morales pointed out that a large number of landlords could fall under the four-unit threshold, and Sawant suggested that “slumlords” already held units in limited liability corporations, making it difficult if not impossible for tenants to know whether or not the landlord has enough units for them to use the winter eviction defense in court.
Landlord groups fought against the bill, saying it would ultimately hurt landlords and tenants alike.
Setting up a law that has to be enforced by courts means that the landlord would have already begun eviction proceedings, a process potentially more expensive than creating more diversion funding to help people pay rent, said Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association.
“The evidence shows when you invest in a tenant early with emergency rental assistance, it’s more cost effective,” Waller said. “It costs between three and five times less to invest in a family having financial hardship before a court action is started.”
The legislation piles more restrictions on landlords who have seen the city and state approve increasing numbers of tenant protections, such as a 14-day “pay or quit” law that lengthened the amount of time for tenants to pay their rent before landlords can start eviction proceedings.
The addition of the mitigation fund will only help landlords if the City Council chooses to fund it during the budget cycle in November. Councilmember Andrew Lewis estimated that could cost the city roughly $500,000.
Those who advocate for tenants’ rights are not swayed by the concerns of landlords.
At the Jan. 23 meeting of the Sustainability & Renters’ Rights committee, chaired by Sawant, Jon Mannella of the Tenants’ Union excoriated landlords, saying that the small-scale landlords who work with tenants to make rent are the exception not the rule.
“Nobody wants an eviction on their record,” Mannella said. “They want to pay rent — they just need more time.”
The Council’s legislation doesn’t actually get a person out of paying rent — even if they cannot be evicted, the debt to the landlord still piles up. There are some funds available through diversion programs, such as Home Base, that will help a tenant out on a bill, but they are few and far between.
Evictions are destabilizing. An eviction on your record makes it harder to get a new apartment and can even disqualify a household from some federal housing programs. Evictions can keep families out of high-opportunity neighborhoods, hurting future incomes, and they are one of the leading causes of homelessness.
According to an evictions study conducted by the Universities of Washington and California at Berkeley, evictions disproportionately impact Black Washingtonians, “making evictions a civil rights issue related to contemporary discrimination in housing access and economic inequality linked to the legacies of segregation, policies, and practices directed against people of color.”
In 2017, 1,218 unlawful detainer cases — evictions — were filed against households in Seattle, according to the Housing Justice Project’s “Losing Home” report. Some were over as little as $10.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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