The Washington State Court of Appeals has struck down a city policy meant to reduce evictions after the end of Seattle’s eviction moratorium.
An ordinance the Seattle City Council passed in May 2020 said tenants who fell behind on rent and faced eviction could, for six months following the end of the moratorium, assert a defense in court if they self-certified that they suffered financial hardship and couldn’t pay the rent.
City leaders pointed to the rule as one key to the city’s emergence from a nearly two-year ban on almost all evictions. As they allowed the eviction moratorium to expire Feb. 28, Mayor Bruce Harrell and Seattle City Council members cited a suite of city tenant protections including the six-month rule as ways of helping vulnerable tenants stay housed as evictions resumed.
In a written decision Monday, the Court of Appeals upheld other city protections, but said the six-month eviction defense “deprives the landlords of their property interest without due process by not affording them the opportunity to test the veracity of a tenant’s self-certification of financial hardship.”
The lawsuit also challenged the city’s ban on evictions during winter months and a law allowing tenants to repay pandemic debt in installments. A King County Superior Court judge last year upheld all but one small portion of the laws. The Court of Appeals affirmed that lower court ruling but added the decision against the six-month rule.
The Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents landlords and sued the city over the rental regulations, said in a statement, “We are grateful for the Court’s decision, which stops the cycle of debt for housing providers and residents trapped in Seattle’s ongoing COVID-19 eviction ban.”
The city attorney’s office did not immediately say whether it plans to seek a review of the case from the state’s highest court.
“We are assessing the implications of today’s ruling and exploring our options — including whether to seek review by the Supreme Court,” spokesperson Anthony Derrick said.
The Rental Housing Association said it would “continue to examine our issues with Seattle’s winter eviction ban.”
Landlords had argued that state law preempted Seattle’s protections, but the court found that because a city eviction limit such as the winter ban or the six-month rule “merely regulates the timing of the eviction,” the local rules were allowed.
The court upheld the winter eviction ban but struck down the six-month rule because of a procedural difference.
The city’s ban on winter evictions requires tenants not make more than the median income in the Seattle area. The court found that landlords would have the right to a hearing to challenge “the factual veracity of the tenant’s claimed income level” and wrote that “nothing prevents the landlord from claiming that a tenant has the ability to pay rent and has simply chosen not to do so.”
But the six-month rule allows tenants to submit a self-certification and “does not allow a landlord to challenge the veracity of the tenant’s certification,” the court wrote.
“The inability to challenge the tenant’s self-certification creates the unnecessary risk that a court will grant a reprieve from eviction to a tenant who does not financially need it,” the ruling says.
The Housing Justice Project, which represents tenants facing eviction, had expected landlords to be able to challenge the self-certifications, even though that wasn’t spelled out explicitly in the law, said Senior Managing Attorney Edmund Witter.
Witter said he wasn’t aware of a client using the six-month rule since the moratorium expired less than a month ago, but described it as an important stopgap for tenants who face eviction while waiting to hear whether they will receive King County rent assistance.
“This was the one saving grace people had during that time,” he said.
In response to the ruling, the City Council could pursue a change to the law.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant said during a meeting Monday her office had asked council staff to “prepare legislation to correct any legal challenge.” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda wrote on Twitter she would work with other council members “to make sure tenants in Seattle have protections needed to stay in their homes.”
Attorneys have 20 days to file a motion for reconsideration and 30 days to seek a review by the state Supreme Court, the court told attorneys for the city in a letter Monday.