In February, the Seattle City Council passed a law brought forward by Council Member Kshama Sawant that bans evictions from December to March for low-income families. The goal of the moratorium is to make sure that no one gets kicked out of their home during the worst time of the year.
Other council members beefed it up with amendments meant to make it more defensible against an expected legal challenge.
Landlords are worried, Mayor Jenny Durkan is not confident it will work (but is going to fund more renter assistance programs!), and Facebook commenters are wigging out.
Reactions range from "Wait, no one has to pay rent in winter?!" to "Why are homeless people getting more rights than homeowners!!!" I collected some of the most common questions and took them directly to City Hall.
What is the moratorium?
"It is an emergency measure to prevent people (we're talking overwhelmingly about low-income families, and mainly people of color) from being thrown out on the streets during the wettest and coldest months of the year," Sawant told The Stranger, "but renters are still responsible for all the rent."
In practice, it's a legal defense for people who are threatened with eviction. Landlords can still file evictions and require the tenant to show up to court where they can cite the ban. Tenants who do not show up to these hearings automatically lose their eviction fight, which some critics of the policy (like the mayor) have pointed out.
So people are getting three months of free rent?
No. No one's getting three months of free rent. Renters will still have to pay all the money they owe to their landlords. They will accrue debt during the moratorium that has to be paid after it's over. If they don't pay, they will be evicted. Sawant says the ban is intended to give people low on funds time to make up the rent, and to encourage landlords to plan and problem-solve with tenants during the period. One of the amendments to the ordinance established the creation of a mitigation fund to pay landlords the rent they miss out on during the moratorium.
Who does this apply to?
Any household with an income at or below 50 percent of the county median income during the past 12 months. As of 2019, the county median household income was approximately $95,009—so that means any household with an income less than $47,504 would qualify. The moratorium doesn't apply to rental properties that have four or fewer units, owner-occupied properties, or "someone renting a room out of a house," Council Member Andrew Lewis said. It also won't apply to tenants engaging in criminal or nuisance activity.
Have other places done this? Has it worked?
Seattle's winter eviction ban is the first of its kind in the United States, but it's not unheard of in Europe. "For nearly 70 years, France has had a treve hivernale, or winter moratorium, on evictions," Sawant said. "The French law gives landlords the ability to pursue eviction, but the court stays the actual eviction until the end of the moratorium, giving tenants there the opportunity to pay back rent or find other housing."
What data supports this idea?
"Every year, hundreds of Seattleites get evicted from their homes, often for owing a month or less in rent," Sawant said. "Nearly 9 out of every 10 end up homeless." She said her data comes from the "Losing Home" report issued in 2018 by the King County Bar Association and Seattle Women's Commission. "In the winter, eviction can be a death sentence," Sawant added. "Nationally, 700 people experiencing homelessness die annually from the effects of hypothermia in US cities, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. In 2018, a record 191 people died homeless in King County."
Who pushed for this?
Sawant credits people living on the street or in shelters, people who have experienced homelessness, and human-services workers as "the core activists who fought hard for this path-breaking law. That's because they know from experience that stopping evictions saves lives. They wrote letters, signed petitions, rallied, and testified movingly before the city council."
How will landlords get paid for the missing rent?
The short answer is the city doesn't know yet. A mitigation fund was created by an amendment from Council Member Lewis, but that money will have to come out of the budgeting process this fall.
Durkan's plan, put forward in the council by Lewis, will give $200,000 to United Way of King County's Home Base program toward a rental assistance fund. That money will trigger an additional $500,000 in private grants for the Home Base program. So a combined $700,000 could become available for renter assistance.
Could this result in stricter qualification requirements for renters (income, rent history, job stability, etc.) that end up hurting the very low-income communities this is trying to help?
"This is what the corporate landlord lobby has said in response to literally every proposed renters' rights provision we have won. There has never been any evidence that it is true," Sawant said. She compared it to "hypothetical arguments" she heard when trying to pass a $15 minimum wage.
Will leases need to change or be rewritten?
No. Sawant said the "ban does not require new lease language." It never hurts to brush up on your tenants' rights, though. If you want to learn more about tenants' rights, look into organizations like Tenants Union of Washington State and Be:Seattle.
Will this reduce rents?
Will this decrease homelessness?
No, probably not. But Sawant argues it "should reduce homelessness in winter months." To really combat homelessness at a meaningful level, more change is needed. Sawant is arguing for more affordable housing and rent control.