After a yearlong moratorium that limited evictions on an unprecedented scale, more evictions are set to resume across Washington in coming weeks.
Gov. Jay Inslee this week released details of what he calls a “bridge” eviction policy as the state emerges from the height of the pandemic. The governor’s proclamation will still limit evictions for unpaid rent, but will allow some evictions for other reasons.
That opens the door for landlords to seek to remove tenants for lease violations, nuisances and other issues.
The new policy marks a significant shift from the moratorium, which banned evictions statewide except in cases of immediate safety risk or when landlords wanted to sell or move into the property. That moratorium expired Wednesday.
Attorneys on both sides of the eviction process are expecting an uptick.
“Over the next several days, you’re going to see a lot of notices be delivered for reasons other than nonpayment of rent. In about 10 or 12 days, you’re going to start seeing lawsuits as landlords are trying to enforce the terms of the lease,” said Evan Loeffler, a Seattle attorney who represents landlords.
With the change in policy, “you are opening up a lot of options” for landlords to evict, said Edmund Witter, managing attorney at the Housing Justice Project, which represents tenants.
Although landlords will be required to offer payment plans for rent debt, “there is not much that prevents a landlord from at least starting an eviction for a lot of other reasons at this point, even if it’s just to … start putting pressure on the tenant,” Witter said.
Tenants with low incomes could still have protection. State law now requires courts to appoint attorneys to low-income tenants facing eviction. However, the program, known as “right to counsel,” is not yet operating in any county.
It’s not clear when the first county will have the service in place. Jim Bamberger, director of the state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid, which is building the program, said, “We are on a fast track. I’m very hopeful counties will be up and running before Sept. 30, including the largest counties.”
Some areas like King County have existing legal aid programs offering lawyers to tenants, though they are not yet formally considered “right-to-counsel.”
Some cities will still have stricter rules in place.
Nearly all evictions are banned in Seattle through Sept. 30. Smaller cities like Kirkland, Burien and Kenmore have also extended their eviction moratoriums through the end of September. And a federal moratorium barring evictions of tenants who are behind on rent is in place through July.
Inslee’s proclamation also will allow landlords to raise rents, with proper notice, which was not allowed under the moratorium.
“The operational costs for rental communities have increased substantially in the past two years and housing providers have been unable to recover those,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the landlord lobbying group Washington Multi-family Housing Association, citing rising property taxes.
Some landlords who receive government rent assistance will still be temporarily prevented from raising rents.
Attorneys for tenants have questions about how courts will handle an influx of cases, arguing virtual hearings can make it hard for tenants to present evidence and get legal help. “There’s a general due-process problem here,” Witter said.
The exact scale of newly allowed evictions won’t be known right away. Of about 4,500 King County evictions in 2019, the vast majority were for nonpayment of rent. Among the cases not dealing with rent, about a third were for lease violations, according to the Housing Justice Project.
Tenants will have some protections not in place when the pandemic began. State lawmakers this year passed “just cause” protections requiring a valid reason for certain evictions. For lease violations, landlords must give tenants a 10-day notice allowing them to address the problem.
Separate rules will apply to cases in which landlords want to evict tenants for falling behind on rent.
Inslee’s proclamation does not allow eviction for debt accrued during the pandemic until rent assistance and mediation programs are operational in the county where the tenant rents.
It will be up to each county’s program to attest to the state that it is prepared and it’s not yet clear how soon that may happen. A handful of counties across Washington, including King, Pierce and Snohomish, have pilot programs in place for mediation. Pierce and Snohomish counties have begun paying out their latest round of rent assistance, though King County doesn’t expect to begin making payments until mid-July.
Under a state law passed this spring, landlords must offer payment plans for pandemic rent debt with monthly payments of no more than one-third the rent. Tenants must respond within 14 days.
Across the state, an estimated 196,000 households, or nearly 15% of renters, are behind on payments, according to an early June survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. The effects are not evenly spread: Higher shares of Black and Hispanic/Latino households report being behind than white renters, according to the survey.
State and county governments have funds to pay off about $1 billion in rent debt, but bureaucratic hurdles mean much of that money has not made it to landlords.
Under Inslee’s rule, for rent owed between Aug. 1 and Sept. 30, landlords cannot evict if the tenant has made a payment as arranged with the landlord or applied for rental assistance. Landlords cannot charge late fees through the end of September.
Unlike the previous moratorium, the new order does not cover tenants in short-term housing like hotels or motels, Airbnbs and camping areas.
This story has been updated to include information about Washington’s law guaranteeing attorneys to people with low incomes.