After a legal challenge from landlords, a King County Superior Court judge is considering whether to strike down several Seattle laws meant to protect tenants from eviction.
Landlords argue Seattle violated their constitutional rights with a series of rental regulations, including a new legal defense for tenants who face eviction once the city lifts its current eviction moratorium.
In court Friday, attorneys representing landlords argued that law and two others stripped property owners of their rights to receive timely rent payments and seek legal action when tenants fail to pay.
Landlords’ rights under state law would be “essentially gutted” by the city regulations, attorney Brad Keller argued Friday.
Defending the laws, attorneys for the city emphasized that tenants will still owe back rent.
Landlords are “being asked to help share some of the burdens of some difficult situations that our society and our city face, and no one welcomes additional burdens,” said attorney Roger Wynne. “But an unwelcome law is not an unconstitutional law.”
King County Superior Court Judge Johanna Bender said she would rule in the case within 30 days.
The outcome of the case could have a significant effect on how evictions play out as the city emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
Social services providers are bracing for a potential spike in homelessness among tenants unable to pay their rent once city, state and federal eviction moratoriums expire.
It’s not clear yet when the moratoriums will end.
The lawsuit, brought by the Rental Housing Association of Washington and several landlords, seeks to block three city laws that would affect eviction proceedings after Seattle’s eviction moratorium ends.
One law requires landlords to offer payment plans to tenants who fail to pay during the city’s declared coronavirus emergency or in the six months after. Another allows tenants a defense against eviction if they declare they have “suffered a financial hardship.”
The lawsuit also attempts to strike down a ban on winter evictions that the Seattle City Council passed before the pandemic.
Attorneys for the landlords say the three regulations extend beyond immediate relief from the pandemic. When the lawsuit was filed, four plaintiff landlords said they each had a tenant owing rent, some as much as $7,000, making it harder for property owners to cover their expenses
A survey of landlords by the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, a lobbying group, found that about 12% of apartment tenants did not make a full or partial payment for January by Jan. 14.
Attorneys for the city wrote in a court filing that the regulations are intended to prevent “the real-world economic and health impacts stemming from evictions in the winter or as the economy emerges from the pandemic.”
Evictions disproportionately affect people of color and women, according to a 2018 analysis by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project.
The Rental Housing Association argues Seattle’s regulations “strike at the heart of a tenant’s core obligation to pay rent timely” even as landlords are still obligated to pay their bills.
“A fully employed tenant, for example, could choose to spend their paycheck buying a luxury vehicle rather than pay rent owed under a written lease and simply self-certify that they now have a ‘financial hardship,’” the attorneys wrote in a court filing.
The city called that characterization “callous.”
“Evictions exacerbate the pandemic’s dangers for evictees and others” by requiring them to move or live unsheltered without access to hygiene, the city wrote.
Bender said Friday the court faced a “legally difficult question” but cautioned that her decision would not pass judgment on how the city should address homelessness and evictions.
“The decision that I will be issuing, although it will be very impactful to many people’s lives, is a decision that will be pretty narrow in scope and really grounded specifically in constitutional analysis,” Bender said.