OLYMPIA — As workers and businesses brace for the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee Wednesday announced a 30-day statewide moratorium on evictions for residential tenants, putting the state in line with similar actions taken recently by the city of Seattle and King County’s court and sheriff’s office.
Inslee also announced several other measures — from flexibility on state tax collections and utility rate-paying assistance, to small-business grants and cash assistance for families — to help people cope with the affects of the outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
The measures follow a cascade of emergency actions by local and state officials to curb the virus — a world pandemic that has hit the state of Washington harder than any other. As of Wednesday, there have been 1,187 cases in the state, including 66 deaths.
Since last Wednesday, Inslee has used emergency powers to shut down social gatherings like concerts and sporting events, close K-12 schools, and bars, restaurants and gyms. The governor and other elected officials have advised people to use social distancing to avoid spreading the virus.
In a news conference Wednesday with Inslee and other officials, Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said the state is already seeing a rise in unemployment claims.
“Last week, we saw a spike of about 150% year-over-year,” LeVine said. She added that preliminary data for this week show an even higher increase in those claims. The state had an unemployment rate in December of 4.3%, a record low.
In response to the drop-off in commerce, Inslee waived the one-week wait period for people signing up to get unemployment insurance, according to the governor’s office. That order is retroactive for claims filed up to March 8, and should “get more funds in the pockets of unemployed workers at a time when they need it most.”
Among other directives, Inslee will release as much as $5 million from a reserve fund in order to give micro-grants to small businesses around the state to prevent them from closing. That process will be coordinated by the state Department of Commerce.
The governor also called on all public utilities around the state to waive late fees, expand programs that offer assistance with bills, and to suspend disconnection tariffs for nonpayment during the emergency.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Revenue will now have the authority to “suspend penalties and interest on certain late tax payments,” according to Inslee’s office.
Washington state will implement payment plans “on the core amount businesses owe without filing tax liens in federal courts” and will suspend “enforcement actions such as forced collections by seizing bank accounts.” Those measures are expected to be in effect for at least 30 days.
The tax-collection measures also waive late-filing fees for property tax exemption renewals, business license renewals, as well as excise tax interest on Business & Occupation taxes, real estate sales, and some other taxes administered by the department. Those include interest related to tax preferences for medical device manufacturing biotechnology.
The tax-related measures are retroactive to Feb. 29, the date Inslee declared a state of emergency for the COVID-19 outbreak.
As part of the eviction measures, residential landlords are not allowed to serve a notice of unlawful detainer for default payment of rent, according to Inslee’s office.
Residential landlords are also barred from issuing a 20-day notice for unlawful detainer, unless the landlord provides an affidavit stating that the action is believed necessary to ensure the health and safety of the tenant or others.
Among other statewide measures, law enforcement is not allowed to enforce eviction orders based only on nonpayment of rent. This order excludes circumstances like nuisance issues or the commission of a crime.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and his legal team helped craft the provisions that temporarily stop evictions, according to Inslee’s office.
The governor’s order was good news for Rick Reeves, a Snohomish County tenant who’s been worried about being evicted and becoming homeless during the crisis. He called Inslee’s order “awesome, to be honest, and much needed, not just for me but people who are in the same situation or worse.”
Reeves, 70, has struggled to work lately due to severe arthritis from decades spent as a house painter, and lives with his brother who recently had a heart attack. He signed up before the pandemic to work on the U.S. Census but that gig now looks unlikely. His next rent payment may be more than he can come up with.
“This is a relief,” Reeves said. “I’m high-risk. It’s very scary to even be outside.”
Xochitl Maykovich, political director at Washington Community Action Network called Inslee’s moratorium on evictions, “an incredible, great thing he should have done last week.”
But while Maykovich is glad more of her organization’s members can breathe easier knowing they won’t be evicted this month, she said she’s worried about what happens when back-rent presumably comes due in April or May.
“Are we going to have a mass wave of evictions in April or May?” said Maykovich, whose organization that has lobbied for stronger renter protections. “What’s the state, what’s the federal government going to do on that? I think they’ve got to be ready to start paying some rent.”
Meanwhile, Seattle landlord Deepali Baumann criticized the ban. She said she’s never evicted a tenant but says property owners have bills to pay, too.
“Politicians are very generous with other people’s money,” said Baumann. “They want mom and pop landlords to provide the social services they haven’t had the courage to provide during the good times.”
“Who’s looking out for us?” she asked, arguing some landlords are just scraping by and will suffer if tenants protected by the ban don’t pay up. “Who’s going to make our mortgage payments. Who’s going to make our property tax payments? Who’s going to pay for the furnace when it dies?”
In a joint statement, the Rental Housing Association of Washington and the Washington Multifamily Housing Association, which represent residential landlords, said they wanted to work with officials to make sure housing providers could still function.
“We must ensure that rental homes remain available to those who need them and that housing providers are not subject to liens, foreclosures, or the loss of property during this outbreak,” according to the statement.
Over the weekend, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed an emergency order temporarily banning rent-related residential evictions and late fees, and on Tuesday signed another order prohibiting evictions for nonprofits and small businesses. Burien’s City Council additionally passed an emergency order banning rent-related residential evictions this week.
King County sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht also took the bold step on Monday of announcing to the King County Superior Court that her deputies would not serve or enforce eviction notices “until we are confident the threat of COVID-19 has dissipated.”
A day later, King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers postponed residential eviction cases until March 30, citing COVID-19 and the confusion stemming from Seattle, Burien and the Sheriff’s Office’s responses to it.
In yet another move Wednesday, the governor announced the state Department of Social and Health Services will expand eligibility for its Family Emergency Assistance Program to include families without children.
Multiple Puget Sound power and water providers announced no-shutoff policies before Inslee’s announcement.
Publicly owned Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities, which provide electricity and water in Washington’s largest city, made the pledge last week. So did Snohomish County Public Utility District, which provides electricity throughout the county and some water service.
They were followed by privately owned Puget Sound Energy, which provides natural gas in Seattle and electricity and natural gas elsewhere in the area.
Bellevue, Redmond and Lakehaven (which serves several southern King County cities), also promised no water shut-offs.