Landlords are once again suing over Washington’s pandemic-era eviction protections.

The Washington Business Properties Association, a coalition of real estate groups, filed a lawsuit in Spokane County Superior Court this month arguing the state’s current eviction process illegally delays landlords’ ability to access the courts. 

The complaint centers around the state’s Eviction Resolution Pilot Program. Under a state law passed in 2021, landlords who want to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent must first notify a Dispute Resolution Center in their county and wait for the center to issue them a certificate.

The process is meant to allow third-party mediators who contract with the state to reach out to the tenant and try to help facilitate negotiation between the two sides. If they can reach an agreement without the landlord filing for an eviction, the thinking goes, courts are less likely to be buried in eviction cases and tenants may be able to avoid an eviction filing on their record.

But landlords argue the dispute resolution centers can be slow to issue the certificates, sometimes taking six months or longer.

“We’re stuck. We’re really at the mercy of these non-judicial entities … to give us the magic ticket to be able to go to court,” said Sean Flynn, vice president of the Washington Business Properties Association. “And they’re not doing it. When they are doing it, it’s not timely.”

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Flynn said delays are a “problem across the state.”

Resolution Washington, the statewide coalition of dispute resolution centers, denied the charge that delays are widespread. From November through June, the median case took 22 days, according to the organization.

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office, which will defend the state against the suit, is reviewing the complaint, spokesperson Dan Jackson said.

The state Supreme Court first created the eviction resolution program in a handful of counties as thousands of tenants fell behind on rent early in the pandemic. State lawmakers expanded the program as part of their attempt to stave off a wave of evictions when the state lifted its eviction moratorium. The mandate that landlords get certificates from the resolution centers in nonpayment cases is set to expire next July.

The process has drawn criticism from both tenant and landlord groups, who say it can be opaque or slow.

Low-income tenants now have the right to an attorney when facing eviction in court, but the dispute resolution process operates outside of court and public view. Tenants may negotiate with their landlord and a mediator before getting help from an attorney, sometimes leading them to accept bad deals, said Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project, which represents tenants in King County. 

“We’ve created a black box where we don’t know what’s going on inside of it,” Witter said.

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Dispute resolution centers handled about 26,000 cases from November through June. The majority did not involve mediation meetings between landlords and tenants.

In about three-quarters of cases, tenants got information or referral to another program, opted not to use the dispute resolution center or did not respond, according to data provided by Resolution Washington. That process can include referring tenants to lawyers, said Jody Suhrbier, head of the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County and past president of Resolution Washington.

Cases in which tenants and landlords did engage in mediation typically take longer, a median 52 days. Landlords and tenants may be waiting for rental assistance or negotiating payment plans, Suhrbier said.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, a Bellevue Democrat who sponsored the 2021 bill, said she now believes tenants should have an attorney present in mediation, but still believes the program is helping some tenants stay out of court.

“Going into eviction when you don’t need to clogs the courts,” Kuderer said. “If we can resolve it short of litigation, why wouldn’t we? That saves everyone time and money, including the landlords.”