Our laws allow one temporary emergency to push renters into homelessness — this needs to change.
While many people may be shocked that a landlord can evict a tenant over $2, I wasn’t. I know from personal experience the callousness of Washington’s eviction process. Legislators must enact stronger tenant protections or more people, including veterans like myself, will become homeless.
Like many tenants who have been evicted, I first encountered the eviction process due to a sudden medical emergency. In early 2012, I contracted MRSA, a severe infection that has a 20 to 50 percent mortality rate. I was admitted to the hospital followed by in-residence 24-hour care. During this ordeal, I was unable to pay rent for my Shoreline home because I was fighting for my life. My property manager knew I was seriously ill because he had someone come to the hospital to give me the Three-Day Pay or Vacate notice.
Once an eviction lawsuit has commenced, there is very little a tenant can do to prevent being evicted from his home. When a tenant falls behind on rent, even just a day late or a dollar short, they can be given a Three-Day Pay or Vacate notice — in addition to late fees. If the tenant does not pay within this time frame, the landlord can proceed with an eviction. At this point, attorney’s fees and court costs pile on top of the back-rent and late fees.
Obviously, since I was hospitalized, I was not able to attend the court hearing, but my illness was not taken into account, so the court ordered a default judgment against me. Even if I would have been able to go to court, it likely would not have done me much good. Washington courts, unlike courts across the country such as Ohio and New York courts, do not use judicial discretion to stay or vacate an eviction. This means a judge will not consider whether a tenant is experiencing an emergency, whether they had been a tenant at this property for years, or even whether the tenant could pay the rent at the time of the court hearing. It did not matter that I couldn’t pay my rent on time because I could die of MRSA in the hospital. I still got evicted.
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Though I survived MRSA, I left the hospital homeless. I was lucky to have friends as well as the VA-contracted local housing and service providers I could rely on while I got back on my feet. My late rent was $1,438. But, after attorney’s fees, court costs and 12 percent interest, four years later, a VA-contracted nonprofit paid $3,732.09 to satisfy the judgment.
Today, I volunteer as a Certified Peer Support Counselor with veterans, many of whom face housing instability because of skyrocketing rental costs and brutal eviction laws. For the veterans I work with who have health conditions, stable housing is key to recovering their health. Eviction sets off a chain reaction of despair and hopelessness. Our community — our veterans — need a more equitable and fair eviction process.
My situation is not unique. The leading reason tenants face eviction is because they fall behind on rent by just a month or less due to a temporary setback such as a medical emergency or loss of income (such as not being paid because of the government shutdown).
State and local lawmakers need to reform the eviction process by passing Senate Bill 5600 and House Bill 1453. This bill would extend the notice period as well as allow judges to fully consider the circumstances that led a tenant to fall behind on rent.
One temporary setback should not push renters into homelessness. Most mortgage loans have a 15-day grace period before late fees are assessed. Twenty-five states have longer notice periods for renters who fall behind, including Tennessee and Minnesota, both of which have a 14-day notice period. Courts in many states in the country, such as Ohio, consider the circumstances surrounding a late rent payment and come up with alternatives to eviction, such as payment plans.
Washington faces an unprecedented housing crisis, so our lawmakers must take action. Let’s catch up to the rest of the country and reform the eviction process. We can’t wait.