Trevor Rigdon has a plan for the next week: Pick up as many Instacart and DoorDash trips as he can, looking to average 10 to 12 hours of work each day.
“I’ll have to get on that … and just work as hard as possible,” Rigdon said.
Rigdon is counting down the days because last week his landlord issued him a 14-day notice to pay the month’s rent he owes or leave his Capitol Hill micro-studio. Even with an array of new city and state protections, including the right to a payment plan, the notice is a source of anxiety because it’s the first step toward potential eviction.
“I’m extremely worried, of course,” Rigdon said.
For nearly two years, Seattle’s eviction moratorium helped tenants who fell behind on rent avoid eviction and drew criticism from landlords who said they were struggling to cover their own bills. Rent assistance was sometimes slow to come by, frustrating advocates on both sides.
Last week, the moratorium expired, opening a new chapter: the return of payment-related eviction notices, new demand for financial and legal help and a test of new tenant protections meant to keep people housed.
Because of sometimes lengthy legal processes, the scale of evictions won’t be clear for some time. But the days just before and after the end of the moratorium have brought an uptick in calls for help, service providers say.
“Everyone’s in panic mode of what to do and who’s going to get served” with remaining rent assistance funds, said Lauren McGowan, associate vice president of United Way of King County.
The Housing Justice Project, which represents King County tenants facing eviction, is receiving 150 to 200 calls a day, up from 40 to 50 about six months ago, said senior managing attorney Edmund Witter. Many callers are looking for help catching up on their rent, but HJP only has the resources to help people actively facing eviction.
The city’s Renting in Seattle hotline has also seen an influx of calls. In 2021, the hotline averaged about 270 calls per month, according to data from the Department of Construction and Inspections. In January, it received 343 calls and in February the number jumped to 527. Weekly data shows call numbers rose from around 82 calls weekly during the first five weeks of the year to an average of 153 the last four weeks, starting the week Mayor Bruce Harrell announced the end of the moratorium.
With an array of new state and city laws in effect, both landlords and tenants are unsure of their rights, said Neal Simpson, spokesperson for Solid Ground, which runs a tenant message line.
“Everybody’s kind of confused about what they can and cannot do,” Simpson said. “And our message really is that renters still have rights. There are still protections in place. There are still options.”
Rent assistance running out
A key piece of the safety net for tenants like Rigdon throughout the pandemic has been hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for emergency rent assistance. Those funds flowed to local governments, and payments were distributed directly to landlords.
Rigdon said he lost work at the Westin downtown early in the pandemic when hotels and restaurants were hard hit by shutdown orders. The well-paid front-of-house work he depended on still hasn’t fully returned to pre-pandemic levels, he said. During the last two years, he has relied on gig work and, for a time, another restaurant job to make ends meet.
But expenses add up each month, especially for the car and phone necessary for delivery work. Rigdon fell behind on rent for months and received about $16,000 in rent assistance last year, he said.
Without that, “I would be homeless — not a question about that one,” Rigdon said.
Tens of thousands of tenants have applied for rent assistance, but local officials will run out of funds before serving all of them.
King County has spent $227 million in federal funds on rent assistance since last year. About 47,400 households have applied for help, and the county no longer takes applications because it expects to run out of money before serving everyone who has applied. Officials expect 7,000 to 8,000 tenants who applied to be left without help.
For tenants who are actively facing eviction in court, the Housing Justice Project has a pool of about $13 million in county funds for rent assistance. The vast majority of those funds are still available.
The city of Seattle alone has invested nearly $59 million toward rental assistance using general funds and federal funding during the last two years. Payments are distributed to tenants by United Way and other community groups and through payments to nonprofit affordable housing providers, according to the Seattle Office of Housing.
But most of those funds are already spoken for before evictions resume.
“As of now, the majority of these funds have been disbursed or otherwise obligated through city partners,” said Stephanie Velasco, communication director for the Office of Housing.
The remaining funds, Velasco says, will be distributed by the end of March to Seattle households — through the King County Eviction Prevention Rental Assistance Program — that applied before Feb. 28.
Now, Velasco says Seattle and other cities are looking to the state and federal government for more money.
Eventually, more funds could arrive. Before the legislative session ends this week, state lawmakers are still debating their budgets in Olympia, where House Democrats have proposed spending an additional $55 million on rent assistance. Once the state runs out of onetime COVID funds, a new, permanent rent assistance program will distribute about $40 million each year, according to the Department of Commerce.
How evictions will work now
In Seattle, tenants will continue to have some protections, including two defenses in court, if they fell behind on rent during the pandemic.
One city law says that for the next six months, tenants can raise a defense in court if they can certify they suffered financial hardship because of the pandemic. Another says tenants can at any time raise a similar defense if they are being evicted for rent debt accrued during the civil emergency declared citywide and for six months after the emergency. The city’s emergency declaration is still in place. Landlords are required to include this information on 14-day notices.
Tenants who miss rent payments within six months of the civil emergency order (not the moratorium) ending are entitled to installment plans to repay their debt, under a 2020 council ordinance. Tenants who owe one month of rent or less can repay the amount in three monthly installments, while those who between one and two months of rent can pay in five installments and those who owe more than two months can pay with six monthly installments. Landlords are required to notify tenants of the installment option.
All of this means that for Seattle tenants “falling behind on bills because of financial hardship, you should be OK, at least for the time being,” Witter said. “The problem that we have is I don’t think a lot of people are going to access that. When we require tenants to make the affirmative step, tenants often tend to struggle with a lot of other barriers.”
Tenants who don’t go to court will be at more risk. Before the pandemic, between 30% and 50% of Washington tenants facing eviction defaulted, meaning they did not respond in court.
Statewide, tenants do not have those defenses in court, but have some other protections. For evictions because of rent owed during the pandemic, landlords must offer tenants a payment plan with monthly payments of no more than a third of the rent. Tenants have 14 days to respond to that offer.
Landlords also must notify a dispute resolution center in their county. There, mediators will attempt to reach the tenant and broker a deal between the two sides. Once the dispute resolution center certifies that a landlord has gone through that process, the court case can go ahead.
Evictions for lease violations do not have those requirements, meaning those eviction cases can move faster.
While it’s too soon to know how many evictions will be filed in Seattle now that the moratorium is over, the King County Dispute Resolution Center has seen a steady stream of landlords issuing 14-day notices. In the last two weeks of February, before the moratorium ended, the center received 679 cases. In the first three days of March, after the Seattle moratorium ended, another 202 cases arrived.
In other parts of the country, a feared “tsunami” of evictions has largely not materialized, likely because of a combination of government assistance programs, court backlogs and people who move out without going to court.
Advocates, attorneys and mediators will begin to get a better idea of the scale of Seattle evictions later this month.
“Like what we’ve seen in most communities, you don’t see this automatic wave of evictions right away because there are a number of tenant protections,” McGowan said. “What you see is stress levels going up. For everyone — landlords and tenants.”
Where to find help
Rent assistance: King County no longer accepts new applications for rent assistance, but smaller organizations and nonprofits throughout the region still have some assistance programs. Call 211 to learn more.
For tenants who have already applied for rent assistance, King County will continue to select recipients using a lottery system. Tenants who have not yet applied for rent assistance can join United Way’s waitlist at uwkc.org/renthelp.
Legal help: If you receive a pay-or-vacate notice in Seattle, call the city’s Renting in Seattle Helpline at 206-684-5700 to make sure it’s a valid notice. The Eastside Legal Assistance Program can also provide legal help to tenants. Apply online or call their helpline: 425-747-7274 (English) 425-620-2778 (español). Renters can also seek help from the Tenant Law Center at 206-324-6890.
If you receive an eviction summons in King County, contact the Housing Justice Project at 206-267-7069 or email email@example.com. Because of high demand, the Housing Justice Project cannot currently help tenants earlier in the eviction process, such as upon receipt of a 14-day notice.
Outside King County, tenants seeking legal help can apply online at nwjustice.org/apply-online or call the Eviction Defense Screening Line at 855-657-8387. (Interpreters are available.)
Remember, a 14-day notice is the beginning of a legal process that can result in eviction. “Landlords can’t just tell you to get out and change the locks on your doors. That’s illegal,” Simpson said.
Find information about your rights and how the eviction process works at washingtonlawhelp.org. For questions and general information about tenants’ rights, call Solid Ground‘s Tenant Services Message Line at 206-694-6767 or the Tenants Union of Washington State hotline at 206-723-0500 or try tenantsunion.org.
Tenants who feel they have been discriminated against in housing based on one of Seattle’s protected classes can file a complaint with the city’s Office for Civil Rights at seattle.gov/civilrights/file-complaint
For help negotiating, tenants and landlords can contact the Dispute Resolution Center of King County at kcdrc.org
Landlords can find information about state mitigation programs on the Department of Commerce website.