After a recent investigation into one private sober housing company, Project Homeless hosted a live, online conversation to talk about tenants’ rights and take a deeper look at issues in sober, homeless and transitional housing.
The discussion was spurred by Project Homeless reporter Sydney Brownstone’s look into Damascus Homes LLC, which was created to help a resource-starved system house people who were homeless, exiting prison or dealing with an addiction.
Despite troubling reports and several red flags, Damascus Homes LLC received public funding for years in the Seattle area’s fractured social services system. After four years in business, the company has left many tenants demoralized or homeless, again.
We recruited Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney of the Housing Justice Project at the King County Bar Association, to join our discussion to help explain how sober and transitional-housing companies are able to operate with little to no oversight.
Witter also offered some insight and tangible advice for tenants who might find themselves in tenuous transitional housing situations. Here’s some of what he had to say:
Tenants living in transitional housing have pretty much the same rights as any type of tenant.
People living in transitional or clean and sober housing situations are entitled to the same types of eviction notices and legal processes just as anyone else, Witter explained. “You shouldn’t be coming home and finding your locks changed,” he said. But that doesn’t mean that landlords operating in this setting always act within the law, he said.
“Sometimes housing providers will just call themselves transitional housing, and it actually is completely meaningless,” Witter said.
“What they are saying is, ‘Well, because we have called ourselves transitional housing, no laws apply to us.'”
Landlords operating within transitional housing settings still need to go to court to properly evict someone, Witter said. Due process of law still applies to tenants living in these situations. And changing the locks on a tenant overnight or withholding their personal belongings due to rent unpaid is against the law, he said.
“A landlord can’t remove you unless they go to court. They need a court order for that,” Witter added.
There are some exemptions in clean and sober housing situations.
Witter did explain, however, that Washington state law does carve out an exemption where tenants living in clean and sober housing could potentially be asked to leave if they’re not following the “clean and sober rules.”
“Pretty rarely do I see evictions that are done because somebody has violated the clean and sober rules of the house, to be frank,” Witter said. “Usually it’s something else, like nonpayment of rent.”
But often, Witter explained, there are a lot of tenants being evicted from this type of housing illegally. “There’s no process involved. And some, even on their websites, will talk about how they think they can do that.”
‘There is definitely an unregulated underbelly of housing.‘
“One of the things to be really clear about is clean and sober housing is not exactly an official thing,” Witter said. “I mean, if you were to Google clean and sober housing, you’re not going to find an official website from King County or another state department [that] says, ‘Here’s a list of clean, sober housing.'”
And because of the unofficial nature of transitional and sober housing, there isn’t a central regulatory body overseeing this work.
“It’s a lot of people … who are fleeing domestic violence, who are having other vulnerabilities or can’t find housing for other reasons, they’re ending up in this type of place,” Witter said. “And there’s just nobody really watching it.”
There are places, but not a lot, that can offer help.
If you live in King County and are facing threat of eviction or have been illegally locked out of your home, you can call Housing Justice Project for free legal assistance. For people leaving inpatient recovery treatment, the Washington Alliance of Quality Recovery Residences (WAQRR) has a registry of verified recovery residences that follow the National Alliance of Recovery Residences’ best practices.
If you are behind on rent or find yourself in a tenuous, unstable housing situation, calling 2-1-1 can help to connect you to organizations offering rental assistance.
Unfortunately, in immediate circumstances, say if a tenant has been locked out of their home, calling the police might not be able to do much, Witter said.
“If you call the police in pretty much any area, if you’ve been illegally locked out, they’re going to tell you it’s a civil matter, go to court,” he said.