With thousands of renters still awaiting help and federal funds running out, King County will soon stop accepting new applications for pandemic rent assistance.

Tenants will no longer be able to apply for county help after Feb. 28 because the county has already received more applications than it can fund with the money available, the Department of Community and Human Services announced Monday. 

After applications close and the money is spent, the county expects about 7,000 to 8,000 tenants will be left without assistance.

When funding runs out, “I expect to be busy,” said Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project, which represents tenants facing eviction.

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King County, like other local governments across the country, tapped into the flood of federal stimulus dollars to distribute an unprecedented level of rental help to landlords whose tenants fell behind on rent. While slow to distribute its funds last year, the county now says it has paid $244 million in rent assistance since 2020.

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The program had backing from both tenants and landlords, who said they were struggling to cover their costs as renters fell behind.

“Everyone needs to recognize how important rent assistance is, particularly when there’s such a shortage of homes right now to support people experiencing financial instability,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents landlords. 

Even so, county officials have warned for months that the money they had would fall short of the need. The county has held off on processing nearly 11,000 applications because it was unsure it would have the funds. 

In 2020, the county provided $37.6 million to about 9,000 households through a lottery program. More than 25,000 landlords and tenants had applied for help. 

Since the second iteration of the program began last summer, nearly 46,000 households have applied. So far, about 17,400 households have received assistance during the second round of the program. Three-fourths of those tenants are Black, Indigenous or people of color, according to county data. The county is paying an average of $11,300 to landlords on behalf of each household.

The state recently announced $66.5 million in additional funding for King County. That will help serve some, but not all, of those still waiting. The closure of applications this month amounts to an acknowledgement from King County that more federal or state funding is unlikely to arrive.

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If the federal or state government steps in with new money, officials could reopen the system.

“We’re going to keep asking no matter how slim the chance is,” said Leo Flor, director of the Department of Community and Human Services.

Long-term challenge

Despite vast levels of funding, pandemic-era aid was not enough to address underlying problems in the housing market that long predated the coronavirus.

New state laws guarantee tenants who are facing eviction legal representation and require landlords to offer payment plans for debt accrued during the pandemic. But problems such as the lack of affordable housing remain.

“There are still a lot of people in our community who do not make enough to be able to afford the price of rent in our community,” Flor said. 

About 4,500 evictions were filed in King County in 2019, before the pandemic, the vast majority for nonpayment of rent. 

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“We’ve got a situation in our community that pre-existed COVID in which it was normal for thousands of people to be evicted each year, and we haven’t really changed any of the underlying drivers of that system,” Flor said.

Witter, with the Housing Justice Project, argues the county should fund ongoing rent assistance, untethered from COVID-19.

The Housing Justice Project has about $13 million in county rent assistance funds, but those funds are available only once a tenant is facing eviction in court.

“My concern is the long-term plan,” Witter said. “We need to keep people housed or otherwise they’re going to become homeless.”

Across the Seattle area, including Bellevue, Tacoma and Everett, an estimated 124,400 households — or 13% of renters — are behind on rent, according to an early January census survey. The effects are disproportionate. Renters of color are more likely to report being behind on rent than white tenants.

Without rent assistance, landlords whose tenants fall behind struggle to cover their costs, said Waller, from the Multi-Family Housing Association. “When you have tenants unable to pay their rent for whatever reason, it ultimately affects the ability to adequately operate that property.”

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The winding down of rent assistance comes as most eviction moratoriums have been lifted across the state.

Seattle’s eviction moratorium, which does not allow residential or small business evictions except in cases of threat to health and safety, will expire at the end of this month, but Seattle tenants will have a defense in court against rent-related evictions for six months after the city moratorium expires. 

Burien’s moratorium, which prohibits only those evictions based on nonpayment of rent, will last through the end of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 emergency proclamation.