Seattle’s eviction moratorium, which for the past nearly two years has prevented evictions of residential renters, small businesses and nonprofits, will be extended through the end of February and then expire, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced Friday.

There will be no more renewals, Harrell said.

It is at least the seventh time the moratorium, first enacted in March 2020, has been extended, as the coronavirus pandemic has waxed, waned, surged and lingered, causing both sickness and death but also lost incomes and economic uncertainty.

“With COVID cases steadily declining, the time has come for the city to move on from the broad approach of the eviction moratoria and instead drive more deliberate and focused efforts to support those most in need,” Harrell said in a prepared statement.

Harrell directed the city’s Office of Housing to distribute $25 million to renters and small landlords, as a complement to the larger amount of rental assistance being distributed by King County.

About 124,000 households — more than 12% of all renters — in the Seattle metro area, which includes King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, are behind on rent, according to a census survey from the first weeks of January.

King County has been working, slowly, to distribute millions of dollars of federal rental assistance to thousands of applicants seeking help. As of last month, the county had spent about $149 million and processed about 27,000 households’ applications. 

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But thousands more applications remain unprocessed and the county has asked for $120 million more in federal funds, saying the need for rental assistance is far greater than the funds available.

The county recently received an additional $66.5 million from the state.

“This additional funding will help serve thousands more applicants, but unfortunately, we still will not be able to serve all pre-registered households,” said Chase Gallagher, a spokesperson for County Executive Dow Constantine. “There are an additional 10,943 applications that have pre-registered and have not been assigned to a provider. If more funds become available, we will seek to distribute those funds accordingly.”

Even if more money does become available, housing advocates are concerned that once evictions begin, some people could lose their homes while they wait in line for their rental assistance to be processed.

“There’s still this really big gap between the need for rental assistance and what’s been made available,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Seattle Transit Riders Union. “If the moratorium ends, we’re going to have a wave of evictions as landlords are trying to get rid of tenants who are behind on rent.”

Other levels of protection are in place for renters once the moratorium expires.

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In 2020, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a bill to give tenants a defense against rent-related evictions for six months after the moratorium ends. And both the city and the state have passed legislation mandating free attorneys for people facing eviction. Seattle also doesn’t allow winter evictions by large landlords.

But those measures do not prevent the eviction process from starting, and they depend on tenants actually showing up in court to defend themselves.

“That’s something that can be a big barrier,” Wilson said.

Seattle also has a suite of new laws that have gone into effect since the moratorium began that, while they don’t directly stop evictions, intend to ease life for renters in one of the country’s most expensive housing markets.

Landlords are now required to give six months’ notice for any rent increase and they also must pay relocation assistance to certain tenants if they raise rents by 10% or more and the tenant moves out.

Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project, said he worried about tenants being able to access their court dates, with some court proceedings still taking place online.

“If you go to the King County Superior Court website for evictions and try to log in, it’s not easy, it’s certainly not intuitive, especially for foreign-language speakers,” Witter said. “You’re going to have people lose their case because they don’t know how to use Zoom or they don’t know how to log in.”

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Olivia Mansker-Stoker, a tenant counselor with the anti-poverty organization Solid Ground, deals regularly with people outside Seattle, where moratoriums are no longer in effect, who are now facing eviction.

Burien, Mansker-Stoker noted, recently extended its moratorium through the end of the state’s declared public health emergency, whenever that may be.

“Seattle needs to do the same,” Mansker-Stoker said. “Two weeks is not enough time for renters.”

Landlord representatives say the moratorium’s expiration is long overdue, and that the moratorium had prevented them from dealing with problem tenants.

“The No. 1 thing is about behavior, it’s not even about rent,” said Sean Flynn, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington. Flynn says he hears from landlords who are unable to address or evict tenants who they suspect of selling drugs or harassing their neighbors.

“You’ve got people sort of just behaving unneighborly and sometimes violently and sometimes criminally and the order has really tied the hands of landlords to enforce lease terms that are behaviorally oriented,” Flynn said.

Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, said other jurisdictions have not seen a wave of evictions when their moratoriums expired.

The last iteration of Washington’s statewide eviction moratorium expired Oct. 31.

“There really is nowhere that evictions have even trended to the level that evictions were filed or occurred prior to the pandemic,” Waller said. “We haven’t seen that in Washington state and we definitely won’t see that in Seattle.”