The Seattle City Council voted Monday to provide residential tenants with a defense against rent-related evictions for six months after the coronavirus emergency moratorium in place right now expires.
Seattle has existing coronavirus-emergency moratoriums that prohibit rent-related evictions of residential tenants, nonprofits and certain small businesses. They’re all set to end on June 4, when a similar, statewide moratorium on residential evictions also is scheduled to run out.
Monday’s bill, sponsored by Council President M. Lorena González, will protect residential tenants for an additional six months by adding a special section to a city law that dictates the circumstances under which evictions can happen.
Emergency bills like González’s legislation need at least seven council votes and must be be signed by the mayor before they can take effect. Monday’s council vote was 9-0, despite opposition from many landlords.
Mayor Jenny Durkan, who recently extended Seattle’s current moratoriums to June 4, “believes people should be able to stay in place” and intends to sign González’s bill, spokesman Ernie Apreza said.
“This legislation … can help people stay housed, and that is the bottom line,” González said, describing the bill as “a time-limited tool” that will allow tenants to “dig out” of the economic crisis caused by coronavirus-related business closures.
The bill says tenants will have a defense in court when an eviction based on failure to pay rent would force them to vacate within six months of the termination of Seattle’s moratorium. It says a landlord “may not evict a residential tenant” who successfully cites that defense in court.
Tenants will still incur debt during the six-month period. Those using the defense will need to certify that they’ve suffered financial hardship, per an amendment by councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen.
The council, however, rejected a proposal by Pedersen to exempt landlords with four or fewer housing units. Pedersen said he wanted to shield small-time property owners who rely on rental income to pay their own bills. That amendment would have cut out too many needy tenants, González said.
During a public comment period before the vote, a number of property owners spoke against the González bill. They said the legislation could encourage unscrupulous renters to withhold rent, depriving mom-and-pop landlords of income. They asked the council to instead provide more rental assistance to struggling tenants.
“Tenants have a legal obligation to pay rent and we have a legal obligation to provide quality housing,” said Dana Frank, a longtime landlord with about 100 units in the Central District, Capitol Hill and Columbia City. “We housing providers should not be penalized.”
Frank is negotiating with tenants on a case-by-case basis, she said. But were she to collect inadequate rental income, she said, she might need to sell the properties her parents battled to purchase and maintain, possibly to outside investors. “You’re going to miss small landlords when we’re gone,” said Jeffrey Cook, another property owner.
Edmund Witter, who leads the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, agreed that more rental assistance is needed; a United Way program set up to help tenants has been overwhelmed, he said.
For that reason, landlords can’t expect all tenants to be able to pay right now and in the coming weeks, he said, supporting a longer “pause” until more tenants can work again and until more assistance can arrive.
“We’d love to be able to pay rent,” but many people are still waiting for assistance they applied for in March, Andrew Grant Houston, a tenant who runs his architecture company out of his home, told the council.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant has encouraged tenants in certain circumstances to hold “rent strikes” by withholding payments they could otherwise make, in solidarity with people unable to pay and to pressure elected leaders to cancel rents altogether. But González stressed Monday her bill won’t release tenants from their rent obligations. She urged tenants who can pay to keep doing so.
“There’s no city law authorizing, condoning or calling for people to not pay their rent,” said Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who rents, arguing some people just need more time. “I did pay my rent, because I’m in a position to.”
Lewis added: “This council has put millions of dollars into rent relief before and during this crisis, with more on the way.” Seattle recently contributed $1 million to United Way’s program and is sending more money soon.
Monday’s bill is similar to legislation passed by the council in February that provided tenants a defense against rent-related evictions between Dec. 1 and March 1 (except for landlords with four or fewer units). Together, Monday’s bill and the wintertime legislation could block many evictions for almost a year.
González is advancing a separate bill that would set guidelines for tenant-landlord payment plans in the year after Seattle’s coronavirus emergency ends. Tenants would have the right to catch up on late rent in monthly installments, and landlords would be barred from charging late fees and interest for most of a year. The council could vote on that bill next week.