As rental debt continues to mount for thousands of Seattle-area tenants and landlords, King County officials say they may run out of funds with many of those renters still awaiting government assistance.
After delays last spring, King County eventually ramped up payments from its rental assistance program, which pays landlords on behalf of tenants who fell behind during the pandemic.
The county continues processing some of those applications. But King County has not processed applications from roughly 10,000 renters because county officials do not know whether they will have enough funds to help. They are also bracing for even more applications.
“With what’s happening in our community right now, we have every reason to believe the number of households at risk of eviction because of COVID is about to increase substantially,” said Leo Flor, director of the Department of Community and Human Services.
Officials have warned since last year that the need would likely outstrip the money available. In late November, the county requested another $120 million in federal funds, but has not yet heard back, said Hedda McLendon, the department’s COVID Emergency Services Group Director.
The backlog underscores the long-term consequences of housing instability that predated the pandemic. And even for those who could afford the Seattle area’s high rents before the pandemic, an uneven economic recovery and individual circumstances mean not everyone is back to that pre-pandemic norm. Landlords are now required to offer payment plans for rent debt accumulated during the pandemic, but not all tenants can afford those monthly payments.
“We’ve never had a sense of normalcy since this whole situation. We’ve never both been working again back to normal,” said Marco Boter, an Auburn tenant who along with his wife Jane fell behind on rent after losing work early in the pandemic. The couple lives with their three young children.
When work returned, it was sporadic and they had trouble getting caught up, Boter said. They applied for rental assistance last fall. Now, they have received a notice to pay or vacate (the first step toward a potential eviction), citing about $30,000 in back rent.
In a mid-November email, the county informed the family, “you are likely eligible for assistance.”
“However,” it read, “King County estimates over 20,000 tenants will have a need for rent assistance and can only process a limited number of applications.” The county uses a lottery system to choose renters who apply for assistance.
“I’ve been sending emails,” Jane said. “We need help as soon as possible.”
Landlords are frustrated, too.
When processing landlord applications last year, the county prioritized those with the highest share of units in debt. That has left some smaller owners and property managers still waiting.
“We don’t want to be in the business of evicting people,” said Jay Wampold, co-owner of a 34-unit Capitol Hill apartment building where he said renters in four units are behind by a total of $20,000.
“We’d prefer to get people whole and have them continue. What we can’t do is provide a long term social service,” Wampold said. “The government is basically asking landlords to provide a social service but not providing landlords with the support they need to do that.”
Other landlords are moving ahead with the early stages of eviction proceedings instead of waiting for government aid—or in an effort to speed up their tenant’s payment.
“Some of the patience is wearing out,” said Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney at the Housing Justice Project, which represents tenants facing eviction.
The Housing Justice Project has access to a separate pot of rent assistance funds, meant to quickly pay off tenants’ debt once they are facing eviction. But the organization has been overwhelmed with calls from tenants who are behind on rent but not yet facing eviction, Witter said. The Housing Justice Project doesn’t have the resources to help them.
While most evictions are still banned in Seattle, they are allowed in some other areas of the county. Witter said his office has seen an uptick in attempted evictions against tenants who have applied for rental assistance but are still waiting.
Property owners say they can’t keep waiting.
“It is not uncommon that a landlord would go six months without getting any information regarding a resident’s application for rental assistance,” said Jim Henderson, a lobbyist for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents landlords.
“The impact of that is the residents become further behind on rent,” Henderson said.
Although the county may run out of funds before serving all individual tenants who have applied, Flor said the county continues to distribute millions of dollars in assistance and expects to be able to fund all of the landlord applications with the current money.
King County has spent about $149 million and processed about 27,000 households’ applications since the start of last year. About 10,200 tenants and 146 landlords, some representing multiple properties, are still waiting, according to the county.
The county says it paid $30 million in November and $44 million in December, more in each month that was spent during the first half of last year.
As the pandemic has stretched on, so has the debt for many renters. King County is now paying an average of $11,300 per household, said spokesperson Katie Rogers. Those payments remain higher than the $8,000 the county originally projected.
Snohomish County has spent about $58 million and assisted 6,300 households. About 8,450 are still waiting, a spokesperson said.
Pierce County has spent $75 million, served about 9,400 households, and roughly 5,000 are still waiting to be processed, according to a spokesperson. (Pierce County has temporarily closed applications for assistance while it shifts to a new processing system.)
All three counties have spent nearly all of the funds allocated in the December 2020 federal stimulus, which was the main source of money last year. Now, they’re each working through more recent federal dollars approved in the American Rescue Plan Act.
While some landlords await payments, others are reconsidering tapping into county funds at all.
Landlords who receive funds from King County receive nine months of back rent owed and three months of future rent, and must agree to forgive further past debt. They also agree to not evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent for six months after receiving payment.
Some landlords look for other assistance programs with fewer strings attached, such as the Housing Justice Project funds, Henderson said. “The county’s rental assistance is not the preferred rental assistance.”
Flor said the county has a responsibility to help tenants stay housed. “Evictions and homelessness are connected,” he said.
For tenants, the delays can be excruciating.
The Boters said they expect their situation to improve this year, as Marco gets more steady work as a concrete finisher. But if they are evicted, finding another apartment could be difficult.
“Basically we end up homeless,” Marco said. “That’s it. There’s no sugar-coating it.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.