On Tuesday a bill designed to reform Washington's racist and retrograde eviction laws passed the House. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Macri, gives tenants more time to respond to eviction notices and allows judges to consider surrounding circumstances of both tenants and landlords before issuing rulings. This is good news! Washington is now one step closer to catching up to states like North Carolina and Tennessee, which have fairer eviction laws than we do.
Zero House Republicans supported the legislation, which isn't such a surprise considering the fact that the bill would moderately improve the lives of many people. However, three Democrats—Reps Kristine Reeves (Federal Way), Zach Hudgins (Renton/Tukwila), and Eric Pettigrew (South Seattle)—joined the Republicans in their opposition, which is kind of surprising. The shock subsides, though, when you realize that Hudgins and Pettigrew are landlords, and that Reeves's grandmother was a landlord.
In a letter addressed to House lawmakers, Gerald Hankerson, president of the NAACP State-Area Conference, argues these three Democrats "voted against the interests of their constituents, especially communities of color."
"It is even more troubling to hear that many of these lawmakers who voted no on this bill are landlords or related to landlords, and their vote seemed to be motivated more by personal financial interest instead of the well-being of the community," Hankerson continued. "This vote demonstrates that it is not only white people who uphold white supremacy in our system."
Update: Clifford Cawthon, housing chair for the Seattle-King County NAACP, said Hankerson "didn't have authorization to make statements about the NAACP's position on these issues from his board." Though Hankerson maintains his title, he's no longer the President of the local chapter and so shouldn't have sent the letter using NAACP's letterhead.
Over the phone Hankerson corrected Cawthon’s characterization. “We’re talking about what state lawmakers did, and, as the president of the state NAACP, only I have the authority to speak for the organization on state issues. The leaders of the King County organization is limited to their county jurisdiction," he said.
According to financial filings, Rep. Pettigrew is a landlord and also the president of a real estate firm called 92 Central.
This wouldn't be the first time Pettigrew voted in his own interest and against the interests of his constituents. As the SECB noted in its reluctant endorsement of his campaign, he's voted against raising the minimum wage, he's tried to loosen regulations for predatory payday lenders, he's voted to shield the state legislature from disclosing public records, and he's promoted charter schools.
Rep. Hudgins lists three pieces of real estate on his personal finance statement, and that's in addition to his house in Tukwila.
Neither representative responded to multiple requests for comment on the NAACP letter and on their history as landlords.
Over the phone, Rep. Reeves, who experienced homelessness when she was 16, said she took issue with the bill allowing renters facing eviction 14 days to come up with the money before having to go to court. Though she says the current three-day pay-or-vacate system is "tough," she worries about small landlords being able to pay their bills.
Her decision was largely influenced by conversations with her grandmother, an 88-year-old woman who used to rent out a duplex as part of her retirement plan. Reeves also mentioned a veteran in her district who told her that he supplements his income from the VA with money from renters.
"The assumption is that folks have the luxury of owning a piece of property for retiring, and that 14 days isn’t going to imperil them," Reeves said. "But when you live paycheck to paycheck and someone chooses not to pay you—she [Reeve's grandmother] didn’t have the luxury of coming up with the money."
"She still has bills to pay. She’s not independently wealthy, and she doesn’t have a huge safety net to draw off of," Reeves added, still referring to her grandmother. "What we’re doing is perpetuating a cycle of poverty for folks. That’s a cycle that I’m not interesting in perpetuating."
When asked if she knew how many small landlords in her district may be dealing with this problem, Reeves said she didn't have an exact number and wouldn't take a guess.
When reminded that people facing eviction are at risk of losing the roof over their heads while "small landlords" are at risk of being charged a late fee of maybe $50 on their mortgage payment—and only after the expiration of a 15-day grace period—Reeves remained unmoved.
"That $50 fee you’re now talking about could be the difference between her getting her prescription drugs that month or not," Reeves said.
My heart goes out to octogenarians who feel they need to quickly evict tenants in order to pay prescription drug bills. But there is no evidence supporting Reeves's concern that the problem may be widespread, nor is it really in any way comparable in degree to the problem facing the tenants in her district.
There is, however, ample evidence that Washington state's current three-day notice is putting people on the street, and that those people, as Hankerson argued, are disproportionally Black and Latino.
As has been widely reported, eviction is the leading cause of homelessness. A study from the Seattle Women's Commission and the Housing Justice Project found that over 50 percent of evicted renters in Washington have been kicked out for owing "one month or less" in rent. The amount of rent they owe is often comically small, and many could pay it if they had a couple weeks to get their next paycheck. And while I didn't see any landlords providing any evidence of being forced to choose between paying bills and paying mortgage on their rental properties during hearings on the bill, I did watch a landlord go on a racist ramble about why he thinks people of color face higher eviction rates than white people.
"Why do we have such high [eviction] numbers with minorities and these other groups? Well, I’m just going to be blunt,” the landlord said. “Drugs and alcohol is the thing as a landlord that I face. Psychosis is something I face.”
Ultimately, these three Democratic no votes don't really matter in the short term. The bill passed the House anyway, and it should pass the Senate, too. Unless, of course, Senate Democrats take a page out of these three lawmakers' books and choose to vote in their personal interests rather than in the interests of their most vulnerable constituents.