Over half of the evictions captured in the Seattle study involved families with children.
Seattle’s current eviction process unnecessarily pushes more people into homelessness, intensifies the burden of medical impoverishment and harms our children. It doesn’t have to be this way. If we support our elected officials who champion this issue, our laws can be improved so that all members of the community are treated justly, have the opportunity to recover from unexpected health emergencies and can give their children a chance to thrive.
In Seattle, more households rent rather than own their homes, and local government is recognizing how its policy can better serve this sizable population. On Jan. 8, the city council, led by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, announced a draft resolution to improve tenant protections. The resolution affirms that evictions in the city disproportionately affect marginalized communities, are commonly associated with tenants experiencing mental-health issues and negatively impact children’s health. In response, the council is preparing to increase funds for tenant outreach, financial assistance and legal defense.
Additionally, the resolution points to the city’s 2019 Legislative Agenda, which seeks changes at the state level (Revised Code of Washington 59.18.220) to lengthen the time period for tenants to cure nonpayment of rent. The council is scheduled to vote on this resolution on Jan. 25. If approved, this resolution will be an important start to addressing a key component of our homelessness crisis that disproportionately impacts women and families of color.
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Late last year, the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project of the King County Bar Association produced a groundbreaking report, “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle.” It revealed that in 2017 there were 1,218 evictions filed in Seattle. We found that only 12.5 percent of those evicted found a new home. More than a third found no shelter at all, and a quarter of those evicted ended up in a homeless shelter or transitional housing. The report also found serious disparities in who is evicted and why. African Americans experienced eviction rates 4.5 times greater than what would be expected based on their population in Seattle. Women were often evicted over smaller sums of money overall.
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Among the report’s more alarming findings was the relationship between eviction, homelessness and health. Costly and often unforeseen medical bills were among the top reasons people couldn’t pay the rent, and 8.6 percent of survey respondents cited a medical emergency as the reason they were evicted.
In one case, a longtime tenant in good standing was hospitalized for two weeks, forcing him to miss a rent payment. During this time, a family member communicated with the property management company but despite this the company filed for an eviction. In a second attempt to stop the eviction, this time in court, the tenant communicated his situation to a judge and his landlord. It did not matter. He was evicted anyway.
Unfortunately, this experience is not unique. The Seattle Women’s Commission also has heard firsthand accounts of single mothers being evicted for seemingly minor issues. This reality aligns with a trend observed in studies from elsewhere in the U.S.: Households with multiple children, and especially those headed by African-American and Latina women, are at higher risk for eviction.
Over half of the evictions captured in the Seattle study involved families with children. For those who lived with school-aged children, most had to move schools and said that their children’s health and academic performance suffered because of the eviction.
Fortunately, the “Losing Home” study has inspired broad action. The Mariners announced a $3 million partnership between the Mariners, United Way and King County Bar Association to address the lack of legal representation for tenants, and recently Microsoft added $5 million to this same fund.
The council and state Legislature have begun to take action on the issue of unjust evictions. In Olympia, state Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, is introducing an omnibus bill to reform the eviction process and provide protections to tenants from arbitrary lease terminations. The council’s resolution also highlights issues to be explored further, including the lack of flexibility tenants face when experiencing a medical emergency, domestic violence or a death in the family.
These policy changes will better support all families to weather medical emergencies, care for their children, and enjoy the stability and security that home should offer. If we want to tackle homelessness, we must support our elected officials as they address this critical piece of the solution.