“Stay home, stay healthy” will be forever etched in our minds after the last year. For renters who lost jobs and income, their ability to do that has been preserved thanks to Gov. Jay Inslee’s leadership in placing a moratorium on evictions and extending the moratorium in response to the ongoing public health crisis. This almost certainly saved lives: research has found that in states where eviction moratoria were lifted, more people got sick and more people died.
The Census Bureau has been tracking how households are faring during this crisis. Consistently, that data has shown a staggering number of families behind on rent. The latest data, from late March, found more than 160,000 people in Washington households behind on their rent payment. More than 60% are in families with children. About 55% are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, who are more likely than white households to be renters due to current and historic racism and were harder hit by the pandemic and the recession. Nearly half a million people who are current on rent relied on unsustainable methods to meet basic spending needs, including borrowing from friends and family or tapping into savings.
Without a carefully crafted plan for ending the eviction moratorium, the public health crisis will become an eviction crisis that drives more people into homelessness. Our organizations are working with communities across Washington and with the Legislature to create that plan, which requires robust and easily accessible rental assistance, protecting tenants from “no cause” evictions, and ensuring they are on a level playing field in eviction court.
In December, Congress authorized $25 billion for rental assistance to keep people in their homes and ensure that landlords get paid. The state has distributed more than $510 million to local communities, and local governments and social service organizations are paying the rent for people as quickly as possible. Another more than $400 million is on the way from the American Rescue Plan Act.
And state House Bill 1277 creates a permanent rental assistance program funded with a new recording fee on real estate transactions like buying or refinancing a home. With just 31 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 of the lowest-income households, Washington had a housing crisis long before COVID-19. This bill, if passed, will help address the ongoing rental assistance need after the federal money runs out.
House Bill 1236 requires that landlords have a legitimate business reason to make someone move, ending the practice of giving tenants 20-day “no cause” notices. This bill, passed by the House and Senate, closes a loophole in fair housing laws and will ensure that rental assistance doesn’t just pay back landlords, but actually keeps people in their homes.
Senate Bill 5160 creates “right to counsel” for tenants in eviction court who can’t afford a lawyer. Right to counsel exists in some cities, but if passed, Washington will be the first state to make this the law of the land. In cities where right to counsel exists, tenants facing eviction are much more likely to remain in their homes. The bill also requires repayment plans, bars landlords from refusing to rent to tenants who fell behind during the pandemic and provides an opportunity for mediation.
Combined, these policies will prevent mass evictions and increased homelessness, but new policies and rent assistance at this scale take time to set up. The legislative session is almost over, but passing legislation is just part of the solution. It will be impossible to distribute all the necessary rental assistance or have lawyers ready to serve tenants across the state by July 1 when the current eviction moratorium is set to expire.
The moratorium on evictions won’t last forever, but it must continue until we have the necessary protections in place — rental assistance, just-cause eviction protections, and legal services for tenants — to keep people in their homes. To do otherwise is to let thousands of Washingtonians needlessly lose their housing when help is on the way.