Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version misstated the year in which Sarah Stewart was evicted.
The Seattle City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on legislation meant to halt residential evictions during the coldest, wettest months of the year, despite Mayor Jenny Durkan warning against the move.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s legislation would prohibit evictions from being carried out between Nov. 1 and April 1, with some exceptions. Sawant has called winter evictions cruel and inhumane.
Supporters say the ban is needed to combat homelessness and to keep people who are down on their luck from being forced outside during bad weather. They note evictions disproportionately affect women and people of color, and people can die without shelter.
“I spent whole nights shivering,” said Sarah Stewart, who slept in her car after she was evicted from her apartment in March 2018 for rent the Seattle Housing Authority claimed she owed.
Living that way was particularly hard because Stewart suffers from a degenerative disease, she says.
“It was really cold, and trying to find a shelter bed was almost impossible,” said the 50-year-old, now an advocate on the issue but still homeless.
The city of Paris has long prohibited most wintertime evictions, and some United States jurisdictions restrict evictions based on inclement weather. The U.S. Marshals Service, which enforces evictions in Washington, D.C., doesn’t carry them out during precipitation or when temperatures drop below freezing.
But Seattle would be the first U.S. city to adopt such a broad ban. Sawant proposed it in response to a request from the Seattle Renters’ Commission.
Critics of the proposal say landlords need to make sure they can pay their bills, and argue Seattle should instead reduce the city’s evictions by connecting needy tenants with rent assistance.
Though Beacon Hill landlord Delaney Wysingle says he has never evicted a tenant, he wants to keep that option available. Some property owners can’t afford to let their rents go uncollected for months, he says.
“I don’t think anyone should be without a safe place, but it wouldn’t take much to wipe me out,” said Wysingle, a member of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents small landlords.
Sawant’s legislation would apply to tenants who fall behind on their rent and to tenants accused of violating certain lease terms. The council’s renters’ rights committee narrowed the ban last month. It wouldn’t apply to tenants engaging in criminal or nuisance activities, nor to owner-occupied properties.
A landlord could still file for eviction during the winter, and a tenant in that situation would have to respond in court by citing the moratorium as a defense. A judge could require the landlord to refile at a later date or could delay the eviction, according to a council memo.
In either case, the tenant would still be responsible for rent during the winter. Late fees could be charged and debt could accrue. Evictions could spike in April. But supporters say the moratorium could lend the landlord and tenant more time to strike a deal and keep the tenant with housing.
The legislation would add to an existing Seattle law that dictates the circumstances under which landlords can and can’t evict tenants. It would take effect next month or in April, depending on mayoral action.
The renters’ rights committee, which Sawant chairs, voted last month to advance her legislation. Sawant and councilmembers Tammy Morales and Andrew Lewis backed the measure. The committee rejected Councilmember Alex Pedersen’s proposal that the ban apply only to city-subsidized housing.
In a memo Thursday, the Durkan administration expressed “deep concerns” about Sawant’s legislation, describing it as “unworkable” and asking that Monday’s vote be postponed.
The mayor’s housing, inspections and human services directors and the Seattle Housing Authority’s executive director wrote that the legislation is likely to be challenged in court, where “a negative outcome is very possible.”
They say it’s unclear exactly how the moratorium would work and contend it could hurt tenants in the long run by saddling them with more debt. It also could drive landlords to raise rents, pursue more evictions during the rest of the year and oust tenants via unauthorized means, they wrote.
Sawant pushed back Thursday against those critiques, calling them “devoid of concrete data” and comparing them to arguments by business people who claimed raising Seattle’s minimum wage would hurt workers.
Supporters note the months covered by Sawant’s legislation have lower temperatures and more precipitation.
Leaving his Pike Place Market apartment last year under threat of eviction sent Joseph Colson into a spiral, he says.
“I ended up having to load all my belongings into boxes and cram them onto a cart and drag them up to Capitol Hill in the snow,” said the 32-year-old, who crashed with a friend for a while.
Colson had been homeless before. Back on the streets, he missed medical appointments. His mental health deteriorated. “My life imploded,” he said.
According to a study by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, there were 1,218 Seattle evictions filed in King County Superior Court in 2017.
They included 509 evictions filed in January, February, March, November and December, mostly for unpaid rent.
The court ordered 340 Seattle evictions during those months, and a percentage of those were enforced by the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Neither the council nor the court have collected Seattle-specific data for 2018 and 2019. Fewer evictions may be happening because the Washington Legislature passed eviction reforms last year. The state now requires landlords to give 14 days notice for evictions, up from three; requires them to provide tenants with information about legal aid; and allows judges to establish payment plans.
Help for tenants has also become more available. The King County Bar Association and United Way began allocating rent assistance and case workers last year to low-income tenants facing eviction.
Also last year, Washington state began issuing loans to keep tenants from being evicted, and Seattle budgeted $3.3 million this year for emergency rent-assistance programs run by nonprofits.
“The number of people being forced out has probably dropped,” said Xochitl Maykovich, political director at Washington Community Action Network, which lobbied for the statewide reforms that took effect last May.
The King County Sheriff’s Office, whose deputies enforce eviction orders, says it received 3,329 court orders in 2019, up from 3,295 in 2018. Deputies enforced 1,191 evictions last year, down from 1,366 in 2018.
In many cases, tenants served notice by their landlords leave immediately, so an eviction is never filed in court, and in other cases, tenants leave, or come to terms with their landlords before ordered evictions are enforced.
Most people are evicted in Seattle for owing one or two months of rent, according to the Women’s Commission and Housing Justice Project study.
Durkan wants to pursue “alternative strategies,” rather than adopt Sawant’s ban, her department directors wrote. Some landlords concur.
“This is not the way to take care of the underlying problem, which is that housing is increasingly unaffordable,” said Kyle Woodring, policy lead at the Rental Housing Association.
“We’re not in the business of evicting people,” added Brett Waller, director of government affairs at the Washington Multifamily Housing Association, which represents large landlords. “We want people to remain housed.”
Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney at the Housing Justice Project, agrees rent assistance is key but says a wintertime “pause button” also makes sense. Many people are sick or looking for work and need more time, he says.
Jade Glover says she and her four children moved out of their apartment this past December under threat of eviction. She says she owed two months rent because she lost her waitress job. Glover lived in Auburn, so a Seattle moratorium wouldn’t have protected her. But her situation isn’t unique.
“I was trying to find a new job,” said the 29-year-old, who’s moved her kids into her mother’s small home.
With a Section 8 rent voucher, Glover has had trouble finding a new apartment.
Witter says a change in mindset is needed. Because evictions can lead to homelessness, they end up costing everyone.
“We need to think about where all these people are going,” he said. “Under bridges. Into tents. Into the shelter system.”
Times data journalist Manuel Villa contributed to this report.