In a state that has long favored landlords, the Washington House and Senate passed two major bills this session that would benefit tenants but, in an April 8 House amendment to one of the bills, codified that the state’s eviction moratorium will end June 30. An April 19 Senatorial motion against the amendment failed, and the Senate approved the amended bill 27-22. Both bills are now awaiting the governor.
HB 1236 would require landlords to provide a legitimate business reason before throwing a tenant out. Currently, Washington law allows landlords to evict month-to-month renters with only 20 days’ notice and “no cause” notices without a reason.
SB 5160 would give renters the right to counsel. The new law would make Washington the first state to provide lawyers for low-income tenants facing eviction. The bill stipulates that the Office of Civil Legal Aid must set aside funds for tenants who go to court with their landlord. The cost is estimated at $22.2 million from 2021-23.
COVID-19 has pinched the thin financial margins of many people in Washington, spurring legislative action to increase renter security. After the quarantine’s first year upheaval, 211,000 Washington households were estimated to be behind on rent as of late March, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
Lawmakers promoted the bills as benevolent, but housing advocates became wary over the House Housing committee’s last-minute amendment to SB 5160 that would end the state’s eviction moratorium June 30.
Without an extension on the moratorium that started when the quarantine began in March 2020, some advocates worry there will be a lag time between when the proposed bill and its benefits take effect and when landlords want to evict residents who are late on payments.
With the revised SB 5160, renters fear lawmakers have created a loophole that could lead to a summer of mass evictions for renters who lack legal representation, or what some are calling the “eviction cliff.” According to The Seattle Times, the Office of Civil Legal Aid director said it “would be impossible to have all the lawyers needed for tenants by July 1.”
Gov. Jay Inslee declared that Washington is in a state of emergency starting Feb. 29, 2020, but has now asked the legislature to end this. Inslee has also loosened the moratorium to allow landlords to evict with 60-days notice if they are going to sell the property or occupy it themselves.
A city of Seattle moratorium on residential and nonprofit- and small-business evictions and a federal ban on housing foreclosures are also set to expire June 30.
The Washington Community Action Network took to the steps of Seattle City Hall April 14, voicing their concerns to raise awareness about the SB 5160 amendment and people’s housing needs.
Chelsea Rabelas spoke at the Washington CAN protest and is among the thousands of Washingtonians who owe back rent. Rabelas said she was living off her savings when her theater troupe halted live performances due to the pandemic. Not knowing what her financial future looked like, she stopped paying rent on her home in Seattle.
Rabelas said she owes $17,000 on rent and either needs breathing room to negotiate payment plans with her landlord or time to figure out which rental assistance programs she qualifies for to avoid a looming eviction.
Washington is estimated to receive $454 million for housing relief from a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bill, but it could take months to arrive.
“With the moratorium ending in June, it puts a big burden on me because I don’t have any housing lined up,” Rabelas said. “I’m still trying to figure out if I get evicted in June; whose couch am I going to sleep on? I don’t drive, so I don’t even have the option of living in a car.”
Inslee could extend the moratorium as he has previously or veto the bill that would end it, but Rebelas wants to see a cancellation of people’s quarantine rent and mortgages. Without that relief, she’s unsure how she and others could ever break free from the vicious cycle of accrued rent debt and eviction retaliation.
King County renter Sarah Stuart is newly housed, but it took three years to regain the stability she lost after her eviction. “You simply cannot get housing with an eviction and rent debt on your record,” Stuart said.
Stuart also said that the large scale of evictions is untold because many people and their hardships are not tracked by the system. It can take years before government assistance like housing programs catches up to them.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is there’s a lot of us that are under the radar,” Stuart said and added that in the pandemic, countless people are kept from resources by heightened barriers, like autoimmune diseases, juggling a non-citizen status or keeping a job.
Stuart said lawmakers’ final decision shouldn’t be based on what’s best for the economy right now. As someone who’s been there, Stuart said that getting people back on their feet helps our whole community in the long run without further disadvantaging the most strained among us.
Read more of the Apr. 21-27, 2021 issue.