OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday announced an extension of the emergency ban on evictions through Sept. 30 in an effort to help Washington tenants navigate the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the existing moratorium set to end June 30, the extension — which is a new version that will be released in the coming days — is an attempt to deal with the pandemic’s massive economic disruptions.
An estimated 195,000 Washington renters are behind on their rent, according to a Census Bureau survey conducted in late May and early June. State officials estimate tenants have accumulated rent debt of about $110 million a month, or roughly $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion total.
It’s a problem with dire consequences for tenants and landlords, even as Washington’s economy starts to rebound and most restrictions on businesses and social activities are set to end by June 30.
“We don’t want to have success reopening our businesses, and then see a wave of homelessness,” Inslee said in a news conference on state’s response to the pandemic.
The governor also said that some indoor mask requirements would remain for unvaccinated people even after the state lifts most restrictions.
Under Inslee’s latest order, landlords will be prohibited from evicting tenants for past-due rent accrued during the pandemic, until a rental assistance program and an eviction-resolution program are operational in their county.
That time frame includes rent that was due between Feb. 29, 2020, and July 31 of this year.
Starting Aug. 1, renters will be expected to pay full rent, unless they have already negotiated an alternative with the landlord or are seeking rental assistance money.
Meanwhile, landlords under the new order must offer tenants a repayment plan before the eviction process is started.
The new ban removes some types of housing from the existing order, including hotels and motels, Airbnbs, long-term care facilities and other nontraditional housing.
The extension drew swift criticism from some Republican state lawmakers, who have protested the eviction ban’s impact on landlords and, more broadly, the governor’s use of sweeping emergency powers.
“Many of these [housing] providers are facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in arrears, and financial assistance programs will not adequately cover their expenses if the moratorium continues much longer,” said Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, in a statement.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the governor’s actions,” Caldier added, describing Inslee’s extension as “heedless overreach by the executive branch …”
Tenant advocates praised the announcement, saying it will allow more time to set up programs, distribute rent assistance and educate landlords and tenants.
Evictions in general disproportionately affect people of color, according to a 2019 University of Washington study which found Black people were evicted five times more often than white people in King County.
“We need to make sure we’re creating safety nets,” said Paula Sardinas, president of the Washington Build Back Black Alliance, which had called on Inslee to extend the moratorium.
Slow rollout for assistance
The governor first ordered the moratorium in March 2020, after broad swaths of economic and social life closed down amid the pandemic. He has since extended the eviction ban several times.
In the spring, the Legislature and Inslee approved a host of programs aimed at preventing a cascade of foreclosures and evictions. That action included directing $658 million in federal aid dollars through the new state budget, which takes effect July 1, for rental assistance.
Legislators, among other things, also expanded the program that attempts to resolve disputes between tenants and landlords before eviction.
The new funding comes in addition to $500 million already released by the state, which has provided rental assistance to more than 80,000 renters and landlords, according to the governor’s office.
Last year, King County distributed about $38 million in rent assistance to 9,000 households.
But overall, the rollout of rent assistance has been slow.
Much of the federal funds already allocated, which are distributed by county governments, has not made it to landlords’ bank accounts.
In King County, about 2,600 landlords and 9,000 tenants have registered to receive assistance. But the state’s most populous county has yet to distribute its latest round of aid.
King County doesn’t expect payments to begin until mid-July, according to Mark Ellerbrook, division director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services.
Building a database to manage King County’s $145 million (with more on the way) has contributed to the delay, Ellerbrook said. Counties have also pointed to new documentation requirements that add time to processing applications for help.
For tenants and landlords, the wait for rental assistance has been excruciating.
White Center renter Annalisa Giust, who said she owes more than $10,000, applied for King County’s rental assistance last fall. But each Friday, she said, she received an email from the county’s lottery-like system telling her, “You were not selected this week.”
Giust used the last of her savings to cover expenses during the pandemic, and in August her roommate moved out, she said, which left her owing the entire rent herself but without the money to move somewhere less expensive.
Now, Giust said she has reapplied to King County and is again waiting to hear back.
This spring, she said she landed a job at Seattle’s Lumen Field mass vaccination site. The site closed this month, leaving her looking for full-time work again, she said. “The stress has been unbelievable.”
Giust’s landlord, Laura Toepel, can’t apply directly to the county for help because the county’s program opened only to larger landlords this spring.
“I have no desire to ever throw out a tenant but I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Toepel said. “We can’t have no income for that forever.”
Money has started flowing, however, to landlords in other Puget Sound counties.
Snohomish County has begun distributing about $58 million in aid. So far, 716 households have received about $6.4 million, according to Jackie Anderson, division manager at the Snohomish County Human Services Department.
Pierce County has so far spent about $19 million for rent and utility help, of roughly $69 million from various sources, according to the county.
About 2,200 households have received an average of $9,000 per household, said spokesperson Kari Moore. The process from application to payment takes on average 57 days, Moore said.
Both landlords and tenant advocates have questions about how the state will define which counties can go ahead with evictions and when.
That includes the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which pushed for the eviction ban to end June 30.
“We’re not advising our members to do anything until we see the specific language of the moratorium,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs at the association.
In an email, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote that “The programs need to be operational so that a tenant or landlord could at least submit an application for assistance or request to participate in the resolution process.”
Vaccination push continues
State officials meanwhile continue to prod residents to get vaccinated.
Most remaining state restrictions will lift June 30, the governor has said, or earlier, if 70% of Washingtonians age 16 and up have gotten their first shot.
But Inslee Thursday said some mask requirements will stay in place beyond that date for people who still aren’t vaccinated.
“After June 30, people who are not vaccinated are still going to be required to wear masks in indoor settings when they go to work,” he said.
“So just get a vaccination,” Inslee added later.
State Health Secretary Umair Shah said he’s hopeful the state can still hit its goal before June 30.
“Today we are at 68.1%, yesterday we were at 68.0% … so we’re making progress, there’s no doubt about it,” Shah said during the news conference.
But if that pace remains, the state may not reopen earlier than June 30.
Officials around the nation are seeing a slowdown in people starting the vaccination process, Shah said, adding: “That is something that we are concerned about in the public health community.”