This month, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan extended the city’s eviction moratorium for the fifth time, this one through Sept. 30. Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new “bridge” policy to limit evictions through the end of September. And the Biden administration extended the nationwide ban for one more month.
Most immediately, elected officials say the slow rollout of rent assistance pushed them to extend the bans.
Yet another round of short-term extensions underscores the difficulty of keeping thousands of renters from tipping over into homelessness, especially in a state with rising costs of living and a shortage of affordable housing. Meanwhile, landlords are also awaiting hundreds of millions of dollars in government aid meant to pay off some back rent.
For Maria Ruelaz, paying $1,300 a month in rent for her one-bedroom Tukwila apartment has felt “pretty impossible” since her husband lost his job last fall. They’re sometimes left weighing whether to pay for rent or other needs, like toiletries.
“It’s like you’re constantly trading out something for something else,” she said.
Landlord Robert Akhtar said 13 tenants are behind on rent at apartments he owns in SeaTac, some by more than $20,000, and some whose debt predates the pandemic. In total, he said he is owed $110,000.
Akhtar is behind on his property taxes and a construction company has filed a lien against the apartment building for unpaid construction work, according to county records.
“There will be a lot of balancing games,” he said. “I have to prioritize which expenses to pay first.”
Eviction moratoriums around the United States changed the landlord-tenant relationship on a scale unlike anything in modern history and opened the door politically for permanent changes.
Washington lawmakers passed a package of laws aimed at easing the return to evictions and also ended some no-cause evictions, which were allowed before the pandemic. Landlords will be required to offer payment plans for pandemic debt.
The pandemic has also boosted political support for emergency rental assistance, said Sophie House, who has researched evictions and housing policy at New York University. But will that help last beyond this year?
Nearly 200,000 renters across Washington are behind on their rent, according to a recent Census Bureau survey. The state estimates they owe a total of $1.1 to $1.2 billion so far. About $1.1 billion in rental assistance is available in Washington, but much of that has not yet been distributed.
Even before the pandemic, many were living on the edge of affording their housing. More than one in five Washington renters paid more than half of their income toward rent. Experts say King County needs more than 100,000 new units of housing for people across different incomes.
For Ruelaz, the apartment in Tukwila has offered stability for her, her husband and her 3-year-old son, she said. If she isn’t selected for county assistance, Ruelaz plans to try to arrange a payment plan with her landlord.
If that doesn’t work, she said, “I will probably end up homeless again.”
Evictions in Seattle, many for a month’s rent or less, disproportionately affected women and people of color. In 2019, about 4,500 evictions were filed in King County, the vast majority for nonpayment of rent, according to the Housing Justice Project, which provides legal services for tenants. Since the start of the pandemic, about 450 cases have been filed, most for a lease violation or because the owner plans to sell or move into the unit.
“We’re basically seeing the consequences of that amount of instability,” House said, “or the potential consequences,” had moratoriums not been in place.
With another extension of moratoriums, many landlords have lost their patience with what they once expected would be short-term emergency measures.
Akhtar said he tried for a federal small-business loan but wasn’t successful.
“I’m really scared of what is going to happen,” he said.
Christina Dobler, one of the owners of a large property management company in Tacoma, said tenants in some buildings have asked to be released from their leases early to avoid neighbors’ noise, smoking and other behaviors that, pre-pandemic, could have violated their lease and resulted in an eviction.
“This inability to remove a problem tenant is forcing other households to move,” Dobler said.
About 100 renters in her 5,500 rental units are currently behind, Dobler said. In total at the end of May, tenants owed $361,000, she said, though Pierce County rent assistance has kept that from being higher.
Seattle’s eviction moratorium has disrupted Ben and Michelle Ohmart’s plan for their West Seattle single-family rental: After moving out of the home themselves, they wanted to rent it out for three years and then sell, allowing them to qualify for a capital-gains tax exemption. But when the lease ended, the couple says, their tenants refused to leave and stopped paying rent.
State policy has allowed evictions if landlords say they intend to sell the property, but Seattle’s rules mention only imminent threats to health or safety.
“I feel honestly held hostage by the city,” Michelle Ohmart said.
Now, they’re planning to sell the house anyway, but expecting it will go for about $75,000 to $80,000 lower than market value because they have been unable to remove the tenants.
Between that home and a duplex they own in Portland, the Ohmarts estimate they are owed about $14,000 in back rent, after receiving rent assistance in Oregon.
Though tenants are legally responsible for their debt, some landlords wonder if they’ll ever be paid.
“I’m assuming we’ll never see that money again,” Ben Ohmart said.
Inslee’s extension of state limits on evictions comes as the state approaches a 70% vaccination rate and the governor is expected to lift many other pandemic restrictions. Under the new order, the date when evictions can begin will depend on whether a county has established supportive programs like rent assistance and mediation.
Economic reopening could make it easier to pick up part-time work, said Mill Creek renter M. Holloway. Holloway, who asked to use her first initial, fell behind on rent after she wasn’t able to use her Section 8 voucher for the townhouse where she lives with her father and 17-year-old daughter, who both have disabilities.
But, Holloway said, “It’s going to take me a while to be able to get the funds to be able to pay anything back.”
She estimates she now owes about $15,000, plus $30,000 in loans she has taken out to try to keep up.
Debt and instability will outlast the pandemic.
Some argue rent assistance set up to help renters and landlords for the short-term emergency should continue. Consider the key role unemployment payments have played during the pandemic, said NYU’s House.
“At a minimum, there’s plainly a need for a new model of emergency rental assistance, something that would be federally funded, locally administered and most importantly already in place when a crisis arises,” she said.