The King County Sheriff’s Office is temporarily halting its service and enforcement of evictions, citing the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The suspension will cover residential and commercial evictions of tenants and foreclosure evictions of homeowners, said Ryan Abbott, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.
The move comes after emergency moratoriums on certain residential evictions were ordered in Seattle and Burien. The city moratoriums say landlords can’t start or advance rent-related eviction cases. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has been considering a moratorium on commercial evictions for small businesses and nonprofits.
Eviction hearings can cause people to venture into public spaces or lose their cases by not showing up, tenant advocates have said. More people are going to be struggling with rent payments soon, because the pandemic has caused many businesses to close and cut back on staff, the advocates have said.
Sheriff’s deputies normally serve and enforce evictions that have been ordered in King County Superior Court. They will stop doing that “until further notice,” Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht wrote Tuesday in a letter to the court’s presiding judge, James Rogers.
“As we continue to evaluate the resources of the King County Sheriff’s Office and plan for significant increases in COVID-19 cases, I have decided that some of our normal assignments and workload must be revised,” Johanknecht wrote, referring to the illness caused by the virus.
“During this extraordinary time, I am temporarily suspending the service and enforcement of evictions,” she wrote.
There could be exceptions made in cases that involve health or safety concerns, said Abbott, the Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
In a news release, Johanknecht attributed her announcement to a need for social distancing, as recommended by public health officials, and to concern “about those who would be without housing during the COVID-19 outbreak.”
“This is no time to be putting vulnerable people and families on the street without shelter,” Johanknecht said.
Olivia One Feather, who has been fighting foreclosure on the Kent home she’s lived in for 14 years, said she received an eviction notice 10 days ago. That was around the time King County officials warned they expected the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases to dramatically increase.
One Feather lives with her elderly father and has been trying to make ends meet by delivering meals through the app Uber Eats. She filed an emergency motion in court Monday to try and halt her eviction process but was terrified she and her father would become homeless — a “death sentence” during this public health crisis, she said.
One Feather said the Sheriff’s Office suspension relieves a huge amount of pressure.
“That means I can pack up things so they don’t get broken and try to get in front of a lawyer to see if I can stay in my house,” One Feather said. “That’s a huge, huge, huge relief.”
Washington’s major landlord associations last week recommended that their members hold off on asking the Sheriff’s Office to enforce evictions in King County.
“This is a crucial step that immediately helps residents remain in their homes while opening the door to vital assistance programs for renters who need help,” the Rental Housing Association of Washington and the Washington Multifamily Housing Association said in a joint statement about Johanknecht’s announcement.
The associations want landlords to still be allowed to start and advance eviction cases in court; the court proceedings can unlock access to certain rent-assistance programs.
Johanknecht’s suspension will take effect Tuesday and “remain in effect until we are confident the threat of COVID-19 has dissipated and we have sufficient resources to resume civil evictions,” she wrote in her letter to the judge.
“I mean no disrespect to the court in temporarily suspending eviction services and will update the court when we are in a position to resume implementing the court’s orders,” the sheriff wrote. “At that time, we can anticipate a backlog while we work through pending eviction orders.”
In a statement, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold applauded Johanknecht’s step, saying the suspension will keep deputies and tenants safe.
Some eviction hearings may still be held in court, particularly outside Seattle and Burien, because Washington’s court system hasn’t made any changes with regard to evictions. Johanknecht’s decision should shield most tenants across the county from being moved out by sheriff’s deputies, however.