Over half of Seattle renters hit with eviction notices last year owed one month’s rent or less, and many tenants who are ultimately evicted wind up homeless, according to a new study of evictions and their consequences.
The study, conducted by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, sheds new light on the strain on low-income renters living in what has been one of the nation’s most steeply rising rental markets.
The study analyzed 1,218 evictions involving nearly 1,500 people filed in King County Superior Court for residential properties inside Seattle in 2017, and surveyed 72 others who faced eviction in 2018. Nearly 90 percent of people who were evicted ended up living with friends or family, in transitional housing or without any other options for immediate shelter. Evictions disproportionately affected people of color and women, according to an analysis of the records.
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“It’s clear from the data and surveys that the problem isn’t tenants not wanting to pay rent, it’s tenants having bad luck and not getting the time to catch up,” says Margaret Diddams, one of the report’s lead authors. “Hasty evictions can turn a moment of bad luck, like a health crisis or unexpected cuts in pay or hours at work, into months of homelessness.”
Most of the evictions were filed for nonpayment of rent, and about half ended in a default judgment because the tenant failed to contest the eviction or appear in court, meaning they may have never had access to an attorney. Of renters who faced eviction, about half owed one month’s rent, with a median rent of $1,250 or less.
Following their evictions, a majority of tenants also owed court costs or attorney’s fees by the time their eviction case was over. Even after the fees are paid, tenants with evictions on their records have an even harder time finding housing, the report indicates.
Sarah Stewart said she was evicted from a Seattle Housing Authority apartment in March after a long battle with the agency over the amount of her monthly rent. At the end of the eviction proceedings, Stewart said she was hit with over $2,000 in court fees and fines. Unable to pay, she’s since spent time living with friends and in her car.
“People will say, well, why don’t you move somewhere else,” she said. “But this is where my job is. It is where I have the support of friends. I know I can’t get that anywhere else.”
Over the last five years, the number of evictions across King County has remained roughly consistent, according to the King County Sheriff’s Office. Last year, the court ordered about 3,200 evictions countywide, and the Sheriff’s Office enforced about 1,200 of them.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how Seattle compares to other cities. Recently released data from a team of researchers at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab found more eviction cases in cities like Milwaukee and Boston, whose populations are slightly smaller than Seattle’s, than in Seattle in 2016. However, the Princeton data did not appear to capture all the local evictions.
Most landlords “do not want to file an eviction against tenants,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs at the landlord lobbying group the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, in an email. “Evictions are harmful and expensive for everyone involved.”
As Seattle has implemented new tenant protections in recent months, landlords have argued that more regulation will cause property owners to sell their buildings to large property management companies or create more stringent screening requirements for tenants. Waller argued, for example, requiring payment plans for people behind in rent will have the same effect. Instead of regulations, more financial help for low-income tenants could help prevent evictions, Waller said.
Several other cities, including New York and San Francisco, have recently moved to guaranteed right to legal counsel during an eviction. Seattle has offered low-income incarcerated people access legal aid to avoid civil “collateral consequences” like eviction, but it does not guarantee a lawyer for people facing eviction.
Edmund Witter, a lawyer with the King County Bar Association who co-authored the study, said the report reveals how thin legal protection for renters is in Washington. Judges in unlawful detainer cases take a hard stance, with most claiming that state law does not allow them to practice discretion, he said. Renters who are late on their payments can stay in their homes only if they pay the full rent and legal fees within five days of an eviction judgement.
“The math doesn’t work,” he said. “You have to have more time, you have to have more ability to be able to come up with that money.”
According to the analysis, Capitol Hill, the Central District, First Hill and downtown saw the highest concentrations of eviction proceedings in 2017.
People of color make up about 31 percent Seattle’s population and 35 percent of its renter households. Yet minority renters disproportionately faced eviction. Nearly 52 percent of tenants facing eviction in 2017 were people of color, with black renters, especially women, facing the highest rates, according to the report.
Because race and gender are often not included in court records, the authors used a method comparing tenants’ names and neighborhoods with census data to estimate their race and sex.
By the time they reach a courtroom, some tenants who have fallen behind on rent and face eviction say they can pay what they owe.
In an in-person survey of 72 tenants seeking legal help from the Housing Justice Project this spring, about 74 percent said they could pay some or all of the rent they owed.
The report recommends requiring landlords to offer payment plans before they issue pay-or-vacate notices, which can be as short as three days notice under state law.
Other policy recommendations include limiting the attorney’s fees and other costs landlords can charge tenants during the eviction process, increasing rental subsidies and affordable housing, expanding legal help for tenants and simplifying the form that notifies them they may be evicted and restricting landlords’ ability to report tenants’ debt to credit agencies.