On a normal Wednesday morning, renters facing eviction pack the Housing Justice Project’s small office inside the King County Courthouse, and spill out into the hall.
This Wednesday, however, the room was nearly empty. Since the novel coronavirus crisis began, fewer people have been turning up for their eviction hearings at the courthouse in downtown Seattle, and fewer have been seeking help with their cases, said Edmund Witter, the Project’s senior managing attorney.
Witter suspects some renters are staying home because public health officials have recommended people avoid crowded public spaces; about one third of the Project’s clients are at least 60 years old, he said. That worries the attorney, he said, because people who miss their hearings lose by default and are cleared by the court to be evicted.
“Something is going on,” said Witter, whose nonprofit provides legal representation and rent-aid referrals to low-income households facing eviction. The Project has offices at the courthouses in Seattle and Kent, where lecterns have been placed in a courtroom to keep the parties beyond sneezing distance from the judge. “There are just a lot more people not showing up,” Witter said.
To make matters worse, the virus has begun to wreak havoc with the Seattle area’s economy, resulting in lost hours for many workers and lost jobs for some. That means more and more people are going to have trouble paying their rent.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant called Wednesday for an emergency moratorium on rent-related evictions, joining a large coalition of labor and advocacy organizations like Working Washington that made the same request in an open letter last weekend. In California, the San Jose City Council is working on a coronavirus evictions moratorium, Sawant noted.
Later Wednesday, Washington’s major landlord groups — the Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHAWA) and the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association (WMFHA) — recommended a 30-day emergency halt to the enforcement of evictions in King County, calling for a hold on writs of restitution.
The writs are issued in eviction cases when courts rule in favor of landlords. RHAWA and WMFHA are asking landlords to not submit the writs to the Sheriff’s Office and are urging the Sheriff’s Office to not enforce the writs, a spokesman said.
The landlord groups want eviction filings to continue; the court proceedings can unlock access to certain rental-assistance programs.
“This hold would prevent physical evictions during the emergency period. Importantly, it would still allow unlawful detainer proceedings to continue but prevent the physical eviction and keep people in their homes,” RHAWA said in a blog post.
Landlords don’t have to abide by the recommendation of the associations, though some may. Housing Justice Project attorney said negotiations with landlords were business as usual Thursday. Landlord lawyer Ryan Weatherstone said his clients are trying to work with renters and added more state assistance is needed.
Working Washington and the other labor and advocacy organizations want filings and physical evictions actually banned, so renters with health concerns don’t have to travel to court, and so people with job problems aren’t punished.
Alise Way has been battling her landlord over an eviction order for months and has been to the Seattle courthouse multiple times in recent weeks. She doesn’t want to go there again because she has cancer — a tumor on her pancreas that she says her doctor has described as inoperable.
“My immune system is compromised. I’m scared to go anywhere,” said Way, 60, who lives in a building for low-income renters in Denny Triangle and whose neighbor, Bartell Roebuck, 50, also is facing eviction.
In noneviction cases, King County Superior Court is excusing jurors with health risks, including those 60 and older. The court also is encouraging hearings by phone, but most people facing evictions don’t know that and don’t know how to do that, Witter said.
Neither the court nor the King County Sheriff’s Office, which enforces evictions, have announced any adjustments specific to evictions.
“Ultimately, we have to follow a court order,” Sheriff’s Office spokesman Ryan Abbot said in an email. “That being said … we work with people all the time [to avoid evictions], depending on circumstances, so that wouldn’t change.”
Superior Court officials didn’t immediately return a request for comment. King County’s Department of Community and Human Services has no plans specific to the outbreak and evictions, spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton said.
Of 12 eviction hearings scheduled in Seattle this Monday through Wednesday, only six renters appeared, Witter said. Of 25 scheduled in Kent, only eight appeared.
“They’re telling vulnerable people to stay home but if you get an eviction notice and you stay home, you’ll get evicted,” said Xochitl Maykovich, policy director at Washington Community Action Network, noting evictions can result in homelessness.
Maykovich’s organization is among those requesting a moratorium. “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” she said.
People living outside may have less ability to protect themselves from the virus, and homeless shelters are “fertile ground” for the transmission of infections, a researcher told The Seattle Times earlier this week.
Meanwhile, cases related to the economy’s nose dive are starting to trickle in. Kaitlin Heinen, a staff attorney with the Housing Justice Project, said she needed to secure more rent assistance for a client this week “because he’s an Uber driver and there’s nobody on the streets,” she said.
The Kent courthouse serves South King County and most clients with cases there are low-income and single mothers, Heinen said. As more schools are closed due to the virus, many of those mothers will need to quit or cut back on work, she said.
There were some signs Thursday that landlords may be starting to show restraint; multiple hearings in Kent were dismissed because the parties worked out deals allowing the renters to stay, Heinen said.
But the attorney expects lost work to become a more widespread problem in the weeks ahead.
A woman who declined to share her name visited the Project’s Seattle office Wednesday because she was just temporarily laid off from her job in the hospitality and events industry. She’d already been dealing with a rent dispute.
“This is rough for everybody,” said the woman, who has signed up for emergency unemployment insurance made available in Washington due to the coronavirus crisis. “I have a little cash [saved] but not enough to cover everything.”
In a letter Wednesday, Sawant asked Mayor Jenny Durkan to ban all economic evictions of residential and commercial renters during the coronavirus emergency and also to ban foreclosures. She suggested City Hall require landlords and mortgage holders to work out payment plans and extend expiring leases.
Durkan declared a civil emergency last week but it’s unclear whether her special powers would allow her to halt evictions. The mayor announced Tuesday that Seattle wouldn’t shut off water and electricity service during the emergency and would defer some tax payments for small businesses.
“Mayor Durkan and our office have been working with several council members … on priorities to help our most vulnerable neighbors and small businesses,” Durkan spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said in an email.
Way’s eviction battle started when the elevator in her Denny Triangle building was broken for three weeks and she held back her January rent payment. She doesn’t want to pay but also doesn’t want to become homeless again during what she describes as “a plague.”
Her neighbor and helper, Roebuck, has an eviction hearing at the courthouse scheduled.
”This is like throwing a rock in the water,” she said. “There are ripples.”