Seattle’s moratorium on residential evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic is facing yet another legal challenge — this time from the Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHAWA), a lobbying group representing nearly 5,000 small landlords across the state.
But like a similar complaint filed earlier this month, this suit may not get far.
In a sharply worded complaint, the landlord organization and three of its members Thursday asked the King County Superior Court to declare the city’s eviction moratorium null and void, on grounds that it unconstitutionally deprives landlords of property without due process.
Seattle’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium expires six months after the city’s coronavirus state of emergency ends. Right now, the state of emergency ends in December — meaning the eviction ban lasts through June.
Plaintiffs also took aim at the city’s ban on winter evictions, enacted this spring, which bars landlords from evicting low- and moderate-income tenants in some buildings during December, January and February.
RHAWA director Sean Martin said in an email that his organization isn’t disputing that landlords should help tenants bear some of the enormous economic disruption of the pandemic.
But, “Seattle’s post-COVID emergency ban on evictions, coupled with … [the] winter eviction ban, puts undue pressure and enormous responsibility on housing providers to financially support residents after the COVID-19 emergency ends,” he said. “The combination of the two moratoriums could mean that some property owners will go as long as a year without receiving rent payments with no opportunity for recourse.” That could drive landlords into foreclosure, possibly reducing the city’s rental housing stock, Martin said.
The suit also challenges the city’s directive that landlords offer tenants interest-free, no-fee payment plans for back rent accrued during the pandemic, calling it “mandated zero-percent financing with no showing of creditworthiness, all at the expense of luckless landlords and regardless of a landlord’s ability to survive such long term losses.”
Three Seattle landlords represented by the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation filed similar accusations against the city and state eviction moratoriums Sept. 3.
If precedent is any guide, neither lawsuit is likely to gain much headway, said Edmund Witter, the director of the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project. Witter has been tracking legal challenges to eviction moratoriums across the country. Of the 22 lawsuits he’s found, “none have succeeded,” he said.
The suit could nevertheless act as a deterrent to other cities considering enacting similar eviction moratoriums, Witter said.
Witter questioned the suit’s timing, coming just days after the city announced it will channel $12 million toward rental assistance for families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The state dedicated $100 million in federal funding to rental assistance last month; $41.4 million of that went to King County.
The RHAWA, Martin said, will continue to request more federal, state and local funding for rental assistance. If that’s the case, responded Witter, “Why didn’t they file this four months ago, when there was no rental assistance? The government is already doing what they want — already compensating them.”
Gov. Jay Inslee will likely include some rental assistance in his budget proposal in the upcoming legislative session, said spokesperson Tara Lee, and will continue advocating more short-term rental assistance dollars from the state.
But amid painful budget shortfalls, largely the result of pandemic shutdowns that suppressed tax collection, the state will be hard-pressed to come up with more money for rental assistance. “We will … need help from the federal government if an additional COVID relief package ever materializes,” Lee said.
Landlords, Lee said, “aren’t the only ones clamoring for assistance.”
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