Anyone facing eviction in Seattle would be entitled to an attorney, at no cost, under a new City Council proposal.
The legislation does not specify a funding source and estimates for what it would cost to provide legal services to tenants facing eviction are rough.
But the impacts, advocates said, would be great.
Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project, which provides much of the legal representation to people facing eviction in King County, said their services generally cost about $300 to $500 per household. They often connect clients to rental-assistance programs, where the average assistance payment is $1,500 to $2,000.
Compare that, Witter said, to the cost to shelter an individual or family that loses housing and enters the homelessness system — usually at least $10,000 and much more to keep them housed.
“I think the math is pretty simple,” Witter said.
A not-yet published study from the Housing Justice Project on Seattle evictions in 2019 found that 52% of tenants with lawyers during their evictions were able to stay in their homes, while only 8% of those with no representation stayed in their homes.
The proposal, from Councilmember Kshama Sawant, passed out of the Sustainability and Renters Rights Committee Thursday on a 3-1 vote. Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales and Sawant voted yes; Councilmember Alex Pedersen voted no. A full City Council vote could come March 15.
“When defending the most basic human need in life — the right to have a safe home — tenants are completely outmatched by profit-seeking landlords,” Sawant said. “This legislation will give tenants a fighting chance when they have to go up against corporate landlords.”
The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 90% of landlords have legal representation in eviction proceedings, while fewer than 10% of tenants do.
Currently seven other cities across the country — New York, Newark, New Jersey, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore and Boulder, Colo. — have laws providing a right to legal counsel at no cost for anyone facing eviction.
Those cities’ experience, while not a direct match, indicate that Seattle’s estimates on the cost of providing counsel could be low.
Boulder’s law, in a city about one-seventh the size of Seattle, passed just last year and allocates $1.9 million annually for both legal representation and rental assistance for those facing eviction. San Francisco, which is slightly larger than Seattle, has budgeted more than $10 million for its right to counsel law. Baltimore, which is slightly smaller than Seattle but has a higher eviction rate, also passed its right-to-counsel law last year. It did so without a cost estimate from the city, but an investment bank and consultant estimated the annual cost for legal representation at $5.7 million. The same study estimated providing the right to free counsel would yield $36 million in benefits or cost-savings to the city and state.
A bill currently working its way through the Legislature in Olympia (SB 5160) would provide a right to counsel for those facing eviction statewide, as well as require landlords to offer repayment plans for people who have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic.
The bill passed the state Senate 29-20 Thursday, largely along party lines, with Democrats supportive and Republicans opposed. But even if it does become law, the right to free counsel would only apply to those making less than 200% of the federal poverty level, or about $53,000 for a family of four, and it wouldn’t go into effect for a year.
The state estimated that providing lawyers for all those facing eviction statewide, who met the eligibility requirements, would cost about $11 million a year.
Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents landlords, said they’re generally supportive of the right to access counsel. He said that without an income eligibility for the program it could run afoul of the state Constitution which prohibits cities from giving money to any individual “except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm.”
Rental assistance, Waller said, is more important and a better use of funds than providing legal counsel to tenants.
Each year about 4,500 evictions are filed in King County, but the number of actual evictions is much higher, Witter said. That’s because a tenant is typically presented with an eviction notice before anything is filed in court. That’s often enough to spur tenants, leery of having an eviction on their legal record, to leave, without contesting it.
And the vast majority of evictions are not because of bad behavior or damage to an apartment; they’re because the tenant doesn’t have enough money.
A 2018 report by the city and the Housing Justice Project which looked at more than 1,200 Seattle evictions in 2017, found that 86% were for nonpayment of rent, and 52% of all evictions were for one month’s rent or less.
“A lot of evictions are just preventable, just flat out preventable if we actually make sure we catch people before they get evicted,” Witter said.
The biggest reason tenants gave for being unable to pay rent was the loss of a job, followed by a medical emergency.
“If we really want to make a concerted effort to stop people from entering the homelessness system, this might be an important step,” Witter said. “Its one thing to make it a mandate, it’s another thing to fund it.”