The Seattle City Council misfired this month when it put new limits on rent-related evictions. Although the council’s intention to help housing stability during the pandemic is the right approach for hard times, the unanimous vote for this legislation was bad for landlords and tenants’ potential debt burdens.
The ordinance enables tenants to cite the economic crisis as a court defense against eviction after not paying rent, if a judge finds financial hardship. This overbroad mechanism carries much potential for abuse. The council should reconsider and enact policy that will instead bring help more than harm.
This ordinance, which will last six months after the city’s coronavirus eviction moratorium ends, threatens the financial stability of landlords, especially small local owners. It also removes an incentive for renters to cooperate on manageable payment plans. Combined with the council’s February decision to prohibit some wintertime evictions, this ties many landlords’ hands from requiring rent well into 2021. It also invites tenants to run up a bill of months of back rent owed while delaying consequences.
Look southward for evidence of how enabling nonpayment can be abused. After Gov. Jay Inslee suspended evictions temporarily during COVID-19, an Olympia City Council member decided to stop paying rent for political reasons.
“Yeah, I have the money in the bank,” the council member, Renata Rollins, told a KING 5 interviewer. But the fair payment of agreed terms lost out to Rollins’ decision to grandstand.
Her larger cause — stopping every residential rent and mortgage payment in America — has support from former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. That national conversation requires thorough economic analysis, not a Washington state rent strike.
The local effects deprive Rollins’ landlord — and those of any renters who follow her lead — of money to cover their own mortgages and maintenance costs. They also reduce the landlords’ cushion to extend help to tenants who are legitimately hard-pressed to cover costs.
Government has ways to help people whose income dissipates mid-lease. Unemployment insurance and rental-assistance programs exist for this purpose. Federal COVID-19 relief legislation has extended these entitlements and should continue to focus on encouraging housing stability.
Landlord surveys indicate the vast majority of residential renters paid up in April and May — about 90% in Washington, according to the Washington Multifamily Housing Association. The National Multifamily Housing Council found the nonpayment rate roughly the same nationwide. That speaks to the success of unemployment benefits extensions and landlords’ willingness to work out reasonable arrangements. The bill the council passed May 11 to require available payment plans is wiser, since it helps work toward an economically sustainable path for all parties.
Unintended consequences from restricting evictions, however, could reverberate long after COVID-19 subsides.