Housing advocacy groups and the City of Seattle urged Gov. Jay Inslee this week to hold off on lifting the statewide eviction moratorium until support programs are in place to keep renters from losing their homes in vast numbers.

Instead of lifting the moratorium all at once, the letter to Inslee proposes a county-by-county approach that would roll back the moratorium only after a county is effectively distributing rental assistance and has set up programs to help tenants. The letter also asks Inslee to extend a prohibition on rent increases for one year. 

Landlords say the moratorium should end at the end of this month, when it’s currently set to expire.

Federal and state governments have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in rental assistance, which is paid to landlords on behalf of tenants who have fallen behind. But not all of that assistance has actually made it to tenants or landlords.

In King County, for example, the county has closed applications for landlords and is accepting applications from tenants, but is still in the early stages of processing applications and distributing the money. It’s not clear yet whether there will be enough funding to cover the need. Tenants who do not get rental assistance are still legally required to pay their rent debt.

At the same time, groups across the state are working to establish two key programs: guaranteed attorneys for low-income tenants facing eviction (known as “right to counsel”) and mediation programs for landlords and tenants to work out issues and avoid going to court.

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The state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid is still standing up the attorney program, with plans to contract with legal aid groups to bring on another 52 attorneys across the state.

“In no location will the right-to-counsel be operational on July 1,” said Director Jim Bamberger. The office has asked Inslee’s office to continue the eviction ban for another 60 to 90 days, Bamberger said.

Landlords argue enough help is available to lift the moratorium now. 

“After a 15-month ban, rising vaccination rates, more than $900 million in available rental assistance, and new programs adopted by the Legislature to support residents and housing providers, it is the right time to end the eviction moratorium,” the Rental Housing Association of Washington and Washington Multifamily Housing Association said in a joint statement. 

The groups called on state and local governments to “rapidly deploy rental assistance to keep the recovery moving forward.”

Black-led organizations are drafting their own letter asking the governor to extend the eviction moratorium, said Paula Sardinas, president of the Washington Build Back Black Alliance.

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Sardinas called on the governor to “find some courage and spine.”

“The Black and brown community is sick and tired of lip service. …. If you believe our lives matter, then demonstrate that by not putting Black women and children on the street and making them homeless,” she said.

An estimated 126,106 households, or 8% of renters, across Washington and 84,808, or 9%, in the Seattle area are behind on rent, according to a May survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Washington Multifamily Housing Association, which represents large landlords, estimated a similar rate: The landlord group’s survey found that about 10% of apartment households across the state had not made any rent payment in April

People of color and women are disproportionately affected by evictions. A 2019 study from the University of Washington found Black adults were evicted five times more than white people in King County and nearly seven times more in Pierce County. 

Inslee has extended the moratorium several times since the start of the pandemic. He has not yet indicated whether he plans to extend the moratorium beyond its current end date of June 30. 

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State lawmakers this year approved a bill including language stating that the current moratorium would end June 30, though Inslee could theoretically impose a new emergency proclamation creating another moratorium.

“We won’t be able to prevent a wave of evictions if the system isn’t up and running,” said Rachael Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, which signed on to the letter.

Myers said she does not think any county in the state would meet the criteria outlined in the letter by July 1.

For the right-to-counsel program, hiring dozens of attorneys is a significant undertaking, especially for rural parts of the state and areas in need of attorneys who speak Spanish, Bamberger said. 

The state Legislature gave the office a year to establish the program, though Bamberger said he expects the program to be “substantially implemented” by Oct. 31.

“There’s this natural assumption we’re all going to be back to normal June 30, the state will open, we’ll all be back to work, everything will be the way it was before the pandemic,” said Sharonne Navas, co-founder of the Equity in Education Coalition, which signed the letter. “The reality is there are people who are 12 or 18 months behind on rent.”

“Just like we took a very slow and concerted approach to the pandemic and opening up the state, we need to take a very slow and concerted approach” to lifting the moratorium, she said. 

Navas said she supports extending the moratorium through the end of next year. Meanwhile, the Tenants Union of Washington State is calling for the moratorium to last through the end of this year.