After more than 18 months of pandemic-driven eviction limits, Gov. Jay Inslee said this week he will allow the latest version of Washington’s eviction moratorium to expire.
That move will open the door for an influx of new eviction cases and test key tenant protections for the first time since the pandemic upended the legal process last year.
“We have to have some end to the moratorium. You can’t have an economy ultimately where just nobody pays rent,” Inslee said at a press conference Thursday.
Soon after the coronavirus hit, Inslee used his emergency powers to halt most evictions. The details of the ban shifted throughout 2020, but generally allowed evictions only in cases of safety risks and when landlords said they wanted to move in or sell their property.
This fall, Inslee loosened those rules. He replaced the moratorium with a “bridge” proclamation that still stopped some evictions for nonpayment of rent in certain parts of the state but allowed evictions for other reasons.
The expiration of that policy on Sunday will mean landlords can seek more evictions of tenants who fell behind on rent during the pandemic, provided owners go through newly required steps such as offering the tenant a payment plan.
Tenant advocates urged Inslee to extend protections again, arguing that many renters are still struggling to catch up and pointing out that local governments have been slow to issue rent assistance payments to tenants and landlords. Landlords pilloried the governor’s policy as a “bridge to nowhere.”
Inslee said this week the state has distributed sufficient funding for rent assistance to local governments and pointed to new programs for mediation and tenant legal help.
“We need landlords and tenants to take full advantage of these programs,” he said.
Just how the coming weeks play out will depend on several factors.
The eviction process should be somewhat slower than pre-pandemic, allowing more time for tenants to get help.
State law now requires landlords to offer tenants repayment plans and to notify a local dispute resolution center when they begin the early steps of the eviction process, allowing for possible mediation before a tenant loses their housing. For landlords following that process, state law requires certain waiting periods, such as allowing a tenant 14 days to respond to a payment plan.
In King County, the Housing Justice Project, a tenant legal aid group, has a $24 million county contract to provide rent help to people who end up facing eviction while they’re still waiting for rent assistance. Statewide, low-income tenants have a new right to no-cost legal representation.
“There are too many processes that have been created for any sort of mass evictions to occur,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents landlords. “The opportunities are available.”
Nationally, a feared flood of evictions has not yet materialized, which experts attribute to a mix of protections still in place, people who “self-evict” rather than face their landlord in court, and some places around the country where the federal moratorium did little to slow eviction filings, the Washington Post reported.
But tenant advocates point out that many renters are not aware of their rights. An estimated 30% to 50% of tenants do not appear at show-cause hearings in the eviction process, which could mean they don’t know about every program that’s available to them.
“What happens to all the people who just move out and think they are getting evicted?” said Edmund Witter, managing attorney at the Housing Justice Project. “I’m not worried about the clients I’m working with. I’m worried about everyone I don’t work with.”
And not all landlords follow the law. Some who are in the process of receiving county rent assistance still try to seek evictions despite county rules against doing so or fail to provide required notices and payment plan offers, Witter said.
Ongoing virtual court hearings make it hard for some tenants with limited internet access or computer skills to navigate the system. And attorneys still aren’t sure how many cases they will see.
The Housing Justice Project received about 150 calls to its hotline Thursday, Witter said.
The rollout of rent assistance has been rocky. The payments are primarily made directly to landlords on behalf of tenants who are behind.
Nationwide, local governments have spent less than half of the $25 billion allocated by Congress. Washington has spent about 38% of its funds, ranking 18th in the country, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which is tracking the spending. King County drew criticism from landlords and tenants with its slow rollout of rent assistance, though payments have sped up in recent weeks.
As of September, cities and counties in Washington had spent $107 million on rent assistance to help 20,500 households. (The data, reported by the state Department of Commerce, lags and does not reflect all federal funding in some counties.)
Across the state, an estimated 128,000 renters are behind on their monthly payments, according to a recent census survey.
Inslee’s policies brought a dramatic drop in evictions, but not a complete end.
In 2019, about 4,500 evictions were filed in King County, the vast majority for nonpayment of rent. Evictions in Seattle disproportionately affected people of color and women, and many were for a month’s rent or less.
In King County, 675 evictions have been filed since the pandemic began, most for lease violations, behavioral issues or because the owner said they plan to sell or occupy the rental, according to the Housing Justice Project. ZIP codes in South King County saw the highest numbers of evictions.
Other renters lost their housing in more informal ways, such as moving out after a text or email from a landlord, and are not reflected in eviction data.
Are you a tenant in need of help?
- Tenants in King County can apply for rent assistance on the King County website
- Find rent assistance programs in other counties and other resources on the Department of Commerce website
- For legal help in King County, call 2-1-1. To reach the Housing Justice Project, call 206-267-7069, email email@example.com or fill out the form available at on the Housing Justice Project website
- For legal help outside King County, people with low incomes can call the CLEAR hotline at 888-201-1014 weekdays between 9:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.
- For help negotiating, find a dispute resolution center in your county at the Washington State Administrative Office of the Court
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