Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan extended the city’s moratorium on evictions through the end of June on Monday, as the City Council pressed pause on legislation that would guarantee a lawyer for anyone facing eviction when the moratorium lifts.
The eviction moratorium applies to residential housing as well as nonprofits and small businesses. First implemented last spring, in the wake of the pandemic, it has been in effect for more than a year, as the city attempts to stave off a potential wave of evictions from people who have lost jobs due to the pandemic.
Durkan last week announced plans to spend nearly $23 million in newly available federal aid for city renters, part of last year’s COVID-19 relief packages. Further rental assistance money will soon become available after last week’s passage of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, Durkan’s office said.
“Seattle residents and businesses continue to feel the economic impact of this pandemic, and we will not successfully recover if we do not include the recovery needs of low-income communities and small businesses,” Durkan said in a prepared statement. “Extending the eviction moratorium provides housing stability for our neighbors as new federal funding arrives.”
The Seattle City Council had been prepared to pass a nonbinding resolution urging Durkan to extend the moratorium, but held off after Durkan extended the measure to June 30.
The City Council had also been scheduled to vote Monday on legislation that would provide a lawyer, at no cost, to any renter facing eviction. Instead, a split City Council voted 6-3 to delay the decision for two weeks.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the lead sponsor of the “right to counsel” legislation, accused her colleagues of working to put means-testing requirements into the bill, potentially creating an income threshold to determine who would qualify for a lawyer.
“My suspicion is you’re delaying it because you want to make it weaker,” she said.
But most of the council members who voted to delay said they support the measure and intend to vote for it, but worry it will face legal challenges.
“They’re going to sue and come after this the way they’ve come after everything else,” said Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a co-sponsor of the legislation, supporting a delay.
Council President M. Lorena González said she’s seen memorandums from the city’s legal department that raise “significant concerns” about the bill in its current form.
González cited the state constitution’s prohibition on “gifts of public funds,” which bars cities from giving money to any individual “except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm.” The Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents landlords, raised similar concerns earlier this month.
She said she would schedule a private, “executive session” of the council, so they could discuss the potential legal issues.
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. City Council staff estimates it would cost an additional $400,000 to $500,000 a year to guarantee legal counsel for those facing eviction, although similar measures in other cities have cost significantly more.
Supporters argue that it would make a big impact, keeping people in their homes who otherwise could become homeless.
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 8% of those with no representation stayed in their homes.
A 2018 report by the city and the Housing Justice Project, which looked at more than 1,200 Seattle evictions in 2017, found that more than half of all evictions were for one month’s rent or less.