Washington is now the first state in the U.S. to ensure that its poorest tenants have access to a lawyer during eviction proceedings.
That guarantee, known as a “right to counsel” by tenant organizers and civil legal aid advocates, was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday as part of a larger bill aimed at preventing a flood of eviction cases once local eviction bans expire.
Several cities, including Seattle, have passed right to counsel laws, and seven other states are considering similar measures.
“A right to counsel furthers racial, economic, and social justice while helping to address the extreme imbalance of power between landlords and tenants,” John Pollock, coordinator of the advocacy group National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, said in an email. “By being the first state to enact a right to counsel, Washington State has showed the 7 states with pending legislation how to get it done, and showed the other 42 states what they need to get done.”
Washington’s right to counsel law guarantees that tenants who receive public assistance or who have incomes at 200% or below the federal poverty level — $25,760 annually for individuals, $53,000 for a household of four — will have access to public attorneys at no cost during evictions.
Pandemic-related layoffs, furloughs and economic slowdowns have caused more than 160,000 Washington households to be behind on rent as of late March, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. That’s nearly 11% of households renting in the state.
Tenant advocates are concerned that the state could tip into an “eviction cliff” before the law’s protections are stood up.
A last-minute deal brokered between Democrats and Republicans in the state House added an amendment to Senate Bill 5160 to end the current statewide eviction moratorium June 30. Inslee made that the end date when he last extended it, an action he has taken multiple times since the outset of the pandemic.
The law doesn’t exclude the possibility of the governor extending the moratorium again. And advocates are pushing him to do so.
“The Legislature has worked hard to get these protections in place, but there is likely going to be more time needed to make sure there isn’t that huge wave of evictions and homelessness that we have been working so hard to prevent,” said Washington Low Income Housing Alliance policy director Michele Thomas.
As of Thursday, the governor had no plans to issue a new eviction moratorium, said Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk. “We’ll continue to follow developments until then and make any additional decisions as necessary,” he added.
The state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid estimates that it will need to hire an additional 58 attorneys as well as contract attorneys in the immediate aftermath of the eviction moratorium to fulfill the right to counsel promise across the state, and it now has 90 days to draft a plan to implement the law within a year. The office has projected that providing these attorneys will cost $11.4 million in the program’s first year.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the income levels that qualify for the program. Incomes at 200% of the federal poverty line or below qualify, not just 125% of the federal poverty line or below.