A dozen Washington counties are a step closer to the possible return of wide-scale evictions after more than a year of pandemic limits.

In King, Snohomish, Pierce and Spokane counties, among others, attorneys will be prepared starting Monday to offer guaranteed free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction, one of the renter protections Washington’s legislature mandated earlier this year in hopes of holding off a flood of evictions once state and local moratoriums are lifted.

Washington became the first state to guarantee legal representation for low-income tenants facing evictions, known as “right to counsel.” Some cities, including Seattle, have approved similar programs.

Maryland and Connecticut followed Washington in approving similar laws this year.

Courts will appoint the attorneys for poor tenants, similar to guaranteed representation in criminal cases. 

“The only thing that is unknown is the level of demand,” Washington Office of Civil Legal Aid Director Jim Bamberger said. 

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Across Washington state, nearly 141,000 households — roughly 10% of renters — report being behind on their rent, according to a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. Renters who are Black or Latino reported higher rates of being behind on rent than white renters, making them more vulnerable to potential eviction.

For the last year and a half, many renters have been able to stay in their homes despite pandemic-related job loss, layoffs and economic turmoil because of the state’s eviction moratorium and, more recently, a “bridge” policy that allows some evictions but limits many others. That policy expires at the end of October. Seattle and several other cities have moratoriums that will last until early next year.

Supporters say guaranteed legal representation will help level the playing field between tenants and landlords, who are often represented in court, as evictions ramp up.

“It’s historic,” said Mark Morzol, managing attorney at the Tacoma-Pierce County Housing Justice Project, which provides legal help for tenants facing eviction. “Tenants who appear unrepresented have little or no chance of winning at a hearing. They are navigating a legal process they don’t understand with laws they are unaware of and defenses they are unaware of.”

Before the pandemic, an average of 17,000 to 20,000 eviction cases were filed each year in Washington, the vast majority in Spokane, Clark, King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, according to the legal aid office.

However, many tenants are evicted without ever appearing in court: 30% to 50% of tenants failed to appear at show-cause hearings before the pandemic. The legal aid office expects appointed lawyers will be needed in between 8,000 and 10,000 cases per year. Full-time attorneys will carry an average of 25 active cases at a time.

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State and local protections appear to be keeping a lid on some evictions for now, but the pace of eviction filings in King and Pierce counties has ticked up slightly.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest “bridge” policy allows evictions for issues other than nonpayment of rent. In King County, the number of eviction filings has started to climb, the vast majority of them for alleged lease violations or behavioral issues. 

For tenants who fell behind on rent during the pandemic, landlords are bound by their county’s ability to meet several key protections beyond just tenant legal representation. Those programs include rent assistance and mediation, where landlords and tenants can attempt to work out issues without going to court. Landlords must also offer payment plans.

Many counties have rent assistance and mediation programs in place, opening the door for evictions. But some landlords are holding out for government aid, which they typically can’t get if they’ve evicted their tenant.

King County’s rental assistance has rolled out at a trickle. The county has distributed $41.4 million so far, almost 29% of its latest $145 million in funds. 

“Broadly, there’s just a lot of confusion about what can occur and cannot occur,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents landlords. 

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Waller said many landlords are “holding tight” on evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent in hopes they can receive rent assistance from county governments.

It’s too soon to say whether the moderate volume of cases is because the state’s protections are working well or because a bigger uptick is still to come, Morzol said.

“Right now, where we are today, I’m optimistic we’re holding the line,” he said, “but that might not be the case three weeks from now.”