Renters in Seattle are no longer protected against eviction after the City Council voted down an effort to extend the moratorium that has been in place since the coronavirus pandemic took hold two years ago.
Council members rejected an attempt by Councilmember Kshama Sawant to continue the moratorium on evictions throughout the duration of Gov. Jay Inslee’s state of emergency around the coronavirus by a vote of five to three, with Councilmember Tammy Morales absent. The extension would have been similar to one passed by the Burien City Council in January.
Mayor Bruce Harrell announced in mid-February that he would not continue the moratorium past the end of the month. Sawant’s proposed resolution would have overturned that decision, unlike most resolutions that the council passes which have no real impact on policy.
Harrell’s two-week grace period was intended to allow time for the distribution of millions of additional dollars in rental assistance to take pressure off of tenants and make landlords whole. According to a survey by the Census Bureau conducted between the end of January and beginning of February, 144,478 households in the Seattle metro area reported being behind on rent and 43,132 said they were very or somewhat likely to be evicted within the next two months.
The City Council passed an eviction moratorium early and has put in place protections for renters in the interim including a legal defense against rent-related eviction for six months after the moratorium ended. That’s on top of $340 million from King County to help struggling renters, said Council President Debora Juarez.
“We knew this moratorium would not last forever. We cannot have a healthy economy if nobody pays rent,” Juarez said.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold offered an amendment to Sawant’s proposal which would have extended the eviction moratorium until the end of April. Herbold said that she was concerned that continuing the moratorium any longer might end in a legal challenge, which could leave renters completely in the lurch.
“An indefinitely extended moratorium could invite more lawsuits, and those lawsuits could not be limited to the moratorium,” Herbold said. “They could impact other pandemic-related protections we have enacted, and they could challenge the ‘Just Cause’ eviction ordinance itself, a law that has protected Seattle tenants for decades.”
Herbold’s amendment was also voted down. Councilmember Alex Pedersen questioned the reasoning behind the two-month extension. Sawant also voted against it while saying that any continued protections for renters would be welcome.
The moratorium may have ended, but conditions for renters haven’t materially changed, said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, an organization that fights for a myriad of causes that impact predominately low-income and vulnerable people.
“The King County rental assistance program is winding down, and there’s a huge gap in rental assistance needed and what’s available,” Wilson said. “I think it’s a real question for renters and for landlords — what’s next?”
According to King County data, $218 million in rental assistance has been distributed so far over the course of the pandemic, helping nearly 20,000 households. However, that figure is less than half of the number of households that expressed a need for rental assistance.
Roughly three-quarters of households that received rental assistance identified as people of color despite making up approximately 39 percent of households in the county, another indication of who was most vulnerable even before the pandemic hit.
The eviction moratoriums put in place by the state and federal governments ended in 2021, and renters outside of Seattle have already been feeling the effects.
The city of Seattle and state of Washington have passed laws to help renters retain legal counsel when facing eviction. However, renters are still impacted by the vagaries of the legal system, said Senior Managing Attorney Edmund Witter of the Housing Justice Project, which represents low-income tenants facing eviction, in an email.
The backlog of court cases is still large, Witter wrote, and people attempting to represent themselves run into major roadblocks.
“Today the server was down, so no one could access their court dates,” Witter wrote. That meant that “pro se” litigants had no dependable warning of their court dates. Something similar happened during the snow event in December.
It is unclear when protections for tenants in cities that have passed extensions matching the governor’s emergency order will end. The state is loosening masking requirements, but hasn’t yet rescinded the emergency order.
That has frustrated lawmakers at the state level, who have forwarded legislation that would allow them to wrest control from the governor and end the state of emergency.
Read more of the Mar. 2-8, 2022 issue.