Seattle may soon ban certain school-year evictions, prohibit some post-pandemic evictions and require landlords to offer lease renewals in many cases.
A City Council committee advanced three bills Tuesday that would provide tenants with those additional protections, and the full council could vote on the bills as early as June 7.
The first bill would establish a new defense against most evictions during each school year for children and students, for their guardians and for educators. Tenants could cite the bill in asking judges to halt their evictions in court; Seattle and Washington state have recently passed laws guaranteeing legal representation for low-income tenants facing evictions.
The bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Kshama Sawant, said evictions interrupt learning and negatively impact the mental health of students.
This March, Seattle Public Schools had more than 2,100 students registered as homeless, according to district data cited by Sawant; 55% were doubled up with other families and 17% were living in transitional housing, while others were in shelters and on the streets. Most students evicted in Seattle end up changing schools, according to a 2018 survey by the Seattle Women’s Commission.
“Imagine trying to focus while losing your home,” Sawant said.
Tuesday’s second bill would require landlords to offer new leases to tenants 60 to 90 days before their existing leases expire and before seeking new tenants, unless there are separate reasons for the tenants to be evicted.
The third bill would establish a new defense, after the pandemic, against evictions based on rent debts incurred during the crisis due to financial hardships, with that period defined by Seattle’s proclaimed COVID-19 emergency.
Councilmember Tammy Morales, who co-sponsored the second and third bills, said the changes are needed to prevent “an avalanche of evictions” from occurring once city and state moratoriums on evictions during the COVID-19 crisis are terminated.
The threat is not only an issue of economic justice, but also of racial justice, because tenants of color are in worse straits due to systemic inequities, Morales said.
The council’s renters rights committee voted 3-1 on each bill. Sawant, Morales and Andrew Lewis voted yes and Alex Pedersen voted no.
A number of tenants and advocates supported the bills during the committee’s public comment period Tuesday, arguing the new protections could help prevent homelessness. They said that the lease-renewal bill would close a loophole in Seattle’s just-cause eviction law that for years has allowed landlords to easily jettison tenants.
Several self-described mom-and-pop landlords opposed the actions, asserting the new bills could cost them crucial income, compel them to subsidize struggling tenants and motivate them to sell their rental housing.
Some said the lease-renewal bill could spur more evictions, because landlords would no longer deal with problem tenants by waiting for their leases to expire. And some landlords complained that the council was ignoring them.
Seattle School Board member Zachary DeWolf and the Seattle Education Association have endorsed the school-year evictions bill, Sawant said.
It would define children and students as anyone under 18 and anyone enrolled in child care through high school, and it would define educators as anyone working at a school, including teachers, janitors, counselors and cafeteria workers. The bill would cover the school year as set by Seattle Public Schools, though it would apply to students in private schools, too.
There would be some exceptions. Families with students and educators could be evicted from condemned buildings, from certain owner-occupied properties and from housing units where criminal activities occur.
The school-year ban is written in a similar way as Seattle’s ban on winter evictions, which the council approved in early 2020. That law created a defense against many evictions for moderate- and low-income renters between Dec. 1 and March 1.
No other city in Washington has banned school-year evictions, but San Francisco has a somewhat similar law, which prohibits evictions of children, students and educators for certain causes, like renovations and condo conversions.
Sawant, Morales and Lewis rejected multiple Pedersen amendments. He proposed limiting the school-year evictions bill to 18 months, excluding school employees other than teachers, exempting landlords with under five housing units and allowing teachers to be evicted for nonpayment of rent.
The lease-renewal bill would apply to tenants with fixed-term leases. Pedersen expressed concern the bill could be challenged in court and struck down as conflicting with a state law. Sawant and Morales disagreed. Lewis acknowledged the risk, but said he thought the city would have a solid case.
The last bill would allow tenants to cite money trouble as a defense against evictions based on rent missed during the pandemic. Tenants would need to sign declarations that they suffered financial hardships during the COVID-19 crisis.
The council last May passed a law prohibiting evictions based on nonpayment of rent for six months after Seattle’s proclaimed COVID-19 emergency; Tuesday’s third bill would add another layer of protection.
Seattle’s COVID-19 moratorium on most evictions and Washington state’s similar measure are currently set to expire on June 30; they’ve been extended many times. The city’s proclaimed emergency has been in place for well over a year now.