Since the onset of the COVID-19-related shutdowns in March 2020, thousands of Washington renters have relied on the statewide moratorium on evictions to stay housed in a time of great economic distress. Throughout the pandemic, the moratorium has been extended several times, with the encouragement of housing activists. As the proposed June 30 cutoff approached, the Cancel the Rent Coalition, which is made up of housing rights advocacy organizations, gathered in South Seattle’s Othello Park to call for an extension through the new year and to cancel rental debt.
On June 24, with recent Census Bureau surveys estimating that nearly 200,000 Washington renters are behind on rent, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the latest development in the eviction moratorium saga. And it is not what the housing activists want — at least not quite.
“It’s a compromise,” said Gina Petry from Radical Women, an organization within the Cancel the Rent Coalition. “[Inslee] has taken some steps in the right direction, which has been important, but certainly, they’ve not been enough.”
The housing stability “bridge” emergency order, effective July 1 through the end of September, will allocate more than a predicted $650 million in federal relief dollars to assist renters. The goal is to smooth the transition between the end of the eviction moratorium and the enactment of Senate Bill 5160, which includes protections such as the Eviction Resolution pilot program and the Right to Counsel program. Inslee says the “bridge” will create “reasonable steps” to help renters receive support during this three-month interim.
Activists are saying they are disappointed but not surprised.
“[Inslee’s] a bureaucrat,” said Sean Smith, from the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, which is King County’s largest shelter network, which is advocating to extend the moratorium. “I don’t see corporate politicians taking radical steps. I see them taking small, incremental steps.”
Seattle and other jurisdictions have extended citywide moratoriums further than the governor has.
With the piecemeal approach and confusing legal language, Tram Tran-Larson, the engagement manager at the Housing Justice Project, said there will likely be confusion and impatience.
“The key piece that we want to point out and make sure that the general public is aware of is that this is not an extension of the state moratorium,” Tran-Larson said. “It is very explicitly not. … It provides less protection for tenants overall.”
Under the provision, landlords are not allowed to evict tenants who are unable to pay what could amount to 17 months of rental debt under the moratorium until rental assistance and eviction resolution programs are in place in their counties. Landlords also cannot treat this unpaid rent as an “enforceable debt” without providing the opportunity to resolve it through an eviction resolution pilot program.
While this proclamation protects tenants temporarily from eviction due to nonpayment, Tran-Larson says it “opens the door” for landlords to evict tenants based on minor lease violations.
“We’re really concerned that a landlord is going to try to use a potential lease violation to file for eviction when we know at the end of the day it’s about nonpayment,” Tran-Larson said.
Tran-Larson says the Housing Justice Project is also concerned that landlords will get “trigger happy” and file for eviction before they are allowed to, as they saw occasionally during the moratorium. This would impact a tenant’s record even if it is not permitted by the state or seen in court.
According to a press release announcing the “bridge,” rent is due Aug. 1. The average monthly rent in Seattle is $1,895, according to RentCafé as of May 2021, which after 16 months could total over $30,000 of debt for a renter.
The Governor’s Office estimates a statewide total of $1.2 billion in rental debt, as reported by The Olympian.
As part of a $7.2 billion plan announced at the end of June, the state of California promises to pay all rental and utility debts.
If a Washington renter does not pay in full, negotiate a repayment plan or seek rental assistance by Aug. 1, a landlord may evict them after offering a “reasonable” repayment plan and providing the tenant with information in writing on available support.
The Housing Justice Project, which Tran-Larson called “one of the most robust eviction defense programs in the state,” has hired 10 new attorneys as part of the Right to Counsel program. While this will double their number of attorneys, more than half will not start until September, a month after the evictions will begin for nonpayment.
“Realistically, the need [for free legal assistance] is going to be so, so high,” Tran-Larson said. “I just don’t know what amount of attorneys we could hire that could possibly serve everybody.”
Most evicted tenants in Seattle become homeless. According to a 2018 study by Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project, only 12.5% of the study’s evicted respondents found another home after eviction.
Smith anticipates evictions will bring a “flood” to an already crowded system. According to Smith, there’s no way to prepare because their shelters are already full.
“There’s nothing that you can do other than continue what you do normally and hope somewhere down the line you see a light,” Smith said. “I just don’t know how politicians sleep at night knowing they are gonna cause great harm.”
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the July 7-13, 2021 issue.