When Katherine Busz caught COVID-19, her life was irrevocably changed.
“It’s been an interesting journey having to navigate being effectively disabled at 36 years old,” Busz said.
Although she wasn’t formally diagnosed, Busz believes she has what medical professionals call “long COVID,” ongoing symptoms that last far after the patient recovers from the initial infection. Busz experiences fatigue and brain fog, and she needs walking sticks to get around.
It meant that she couldn’t return to her job at the FamilyWorks Resource Center, which she left in November 2020, and that meant that she couldn’t pay her rent.
Busz considers herself one of the lucky ones. Just days before she spoke with Real Change, Busz received word that her back rent would be paid off through a county program meant to help renters who fell behind during the pandemic — she was behind by 11 months, buoyed by the eviction moratorium that was set to expire on Jan. 15.
“Emotionally I feel so relieved. It just, what’s hardest for me to deal with is that I didn’t do anything special to deserve this,” Busz said. “It’s a huge weight off my shoulders because I was able to jump through all of the hoops and feeling ‘but there for the grace of God go I.’”
Seattle renters who are holding on because of the coronavirus eviction moratorium got a reprieve on Jan. 12 when Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that he would extend the moratorium until Feb. 14. That’s another month of protection after moratoriums at the state level and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) either expired or were struck down by courts.
Gov. Jay Inslee allowed his initial eviction moratorium to expire and replaced it with a “bridge” policy, but that, too, expired in October 2021.
The extension was necessary in light of the surge of coronavirus cases due to the Omicron variant, a highly transmissible version of the COVID-19 virus that has strained public health resources, Harrell said at the press conference. He also plans to put together an interdepartmental team to get funds out to tenants and landlords as well as to gather and analyze data about the effectiveness of the moratorium.
“We have made the decision to extend it for a 30-day period. There have been many extensions in the past,” Harrell said.
The new executive order will do more, Harrell said. It aims to ensure that people will continue to be housed and that there will not be a decrease in the overall number of rental units after the moratorium expires. It also prohibits utility shut offs through April 15 and booting of vehicles for unpaid parking tickets.
Landlord groups opposed the extension, urging Harrell to let the moratorium expire “once and for all.”
“Millions in rental assistance, programs like [the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program], Seattle’s winter eviction ban, and Seattle’s six month post-COVID emergency eviction moratorium are more than enough to assist the remaining residents impacted by COVID,” said the Rental Housing Association of Washington and the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association in a joint statement.
But it takes time to qualify for rental assistance, assuming that a landlord accepts funds from the program at all. Busz helped people access government assistance programs as part of her job when she was still able to work. Even with that experience under her belt, she found the program difficult to navigate.
Some people were permanently disqualified from accessing rental assistance because they applied early, managed to put funds together to stay housed and couldn’t apply again when they needed it, said Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney of the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project.
“If you get pulled from the lottery and it turns out that maybe you’re up to date on your rent but you’re behind next month, but at the time you’re pulled you’re not exactly behind on your rent, then you get rejected and you can never reapply,” Witter said. “We’ve seen quite a few of that.”
While King County renters haven’t yet seen the deluge of evictions that policymakers and advocates feared, eviction proceedings are beginning to pile up, Witter said. Many are in the preliminary stage before they create a trail of public records, making them difficult to quantify.
Evictions can happen quickly, Witter said, sometimes taking as little as six weeks from start to finish. That’s a far cry from foreclosure proceedings, which can take more like a year and a half.
“It’s interesting because it shows a different priority from a policy level of what types of interests we’re trying to protect,” Witter said. “I think it’s also a racial issue because of who tends to be renters.”
The Burien City Council took action to extend its eviction moratorium as well, but that council chose to peg the expiration of its moratoriums to Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus emergency declaration.
That is still very much up in the air, said Mike Faulk, spokesperson for Inslee’s office.
“[A]t this point there is still a lot of uncertainty around the pandemic — we just yesterday activated the National Guard to send them to help hospitals — so there is no estimated timeline,” Faulk wrote in an email.
According to the Washington state COVID-19 dashboard, more than 1 million Washingtonians have had confirmed or probable cases of the coronavirus as of Jan. 13. Those cases spiked at the beginning of January with a more than 15,500-case rolling average over seven days.
Eviction moratoriums have been an important tool in protecting people as the coronavirus continues to hit U.S. residents hard, said Jasmine Rangel, a research specialist with Eviction Lab, a project of Princeton University that tracks and researches evictions in the country. However, there is no “silver bullet” when it comes to keeping people housed, Rangel said.
“When it comes to policy options, we can’t just rely on the moratoriums,” Rangel said. “We can’t prevent evictions with just one solution, such as a moratorium. We’ve been able to see that the combination of state, local and federal policies have all been really fruitful in yielding what we have not seen as a tsunami of evictions that have been kept at bay.”
Rental assistance, enhanced unemployment benefits and the Child Tax Credit all helped to get needed resources to households that needed the help in order to cover the monthly rent. Getting the federal government to fund these kinds of interventions has been the most politically palatable option, Rangel said.
“It took a long time for the emergency rental assistance programs across the country to gain that that reputation, but now we’re able to see that some programs are beginning to run out of money because they’re providing it so quickly to their local areas,” Rangel said.
Seattle’s extension covers renters until Feb. 14. The rental assistance Busz was able to secure will keep her rent paid until May, at which point she’ll have to find some way to get by until August when her partner moves back to the city.
Busz feels hopeful that she will ultimately be okay but knows that isn’t true for thousands of other people.
“I cannot be the only person who’s been disabled by COVID in this city. So many more people are struggling for various reasons, and nobody should be unhoused because of this,” Busz said. “Nobody should be unhoused, period.”
Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News.
Read more of the Jan. 19-25, 2022 issue.