Every morning, renters file into the King County Superior Courts in Seattle and Kent to respond to eviction notices and cases. While they wait to get legal help or to speak to a judge, people, many of them seniors, are forced to sit close to each other for hours at a time. As more and more workers lose hours due to COVID-19, the number of people filing the courthouse due to eviction will only increase - and this is the exact opposite of the social distancing practices public health experts have been encouraging the community to practice now that we are on the verge of a pandemic. Further - given the terrible health impacts of homelessness - we need to do everything possible to keep people housed during this outbreak.
In this unprecedented public health emergency, Washington state and local elected leaders must adopt unprecedented measures to prevent the destructive spread of COVID-19 to our most vulnerable populations, including using their emergency powers to enact a moratorium on evictions.
Already state and local government officials have used their emergency powers to mandate free testing for coronavirus, to purchase a motel to house people under quarantine, to explore measures for business relief, and to halt some utility shutoffs. But these actions fall short of a comprehensive response. In King County alone there are 156,000 households that are already cost burdened due to high rents, with many just one paycheck away from losing their home. With the reduction in business due to the outbreak, many hourly and gig workers are seeing lost wages and will struggle to pay rent.
Low-wage workers are facing impossible choices. Should they stay home when sick and lose income, or continue working to pay the rent while potentially exposing the public to a deadly virus? If they themselves are vulnerable due to medical conditions or age, should they risk exposure or eviction? Evictions are still being filed and renters are heading to court, even as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rises daily. Until a moratorium on evictions is enacted, people will continue making choices that put themselves and others at risk.
Not only do evictions threaten the welfare of individual renters, who could be made homeless, they endanger everyone in the courthouse and the wider community. To access legal and financial resources, renters must appear in court. When a renter has a hearing, they are also seeking help from legal and financial resources co-located with the court. Most of these cases are resolved without the judge reviewing the case because these day-of services stop the eviction from proceeding any further. There is no logistical way for renters to access these services without going in person. As long as evictions are filed, renters vulnerable to COVID-19, such as seniors or people with compromised immune systems, may be exposed to the virus, and potentially take it back to their apartment. Imagine what would happen if a renter was exposed at the courthouse and brought COVID-19 back to senior housing.
Many renters facing eviction are older, and many have disabilities. The Losing Home report found that nearly a third of the Housing Justice Project’s clients are older than 55 years old, and clients 76-years-old or older had the highest poverty rate, with their median income level being just 74.6% of the Federal Poverty Level. Not only are these individuals most likely to face severe health consequences because of COVID-19, they also lack the health care and financial resources to handle the harmful effects.
Now that Governor Inslee, Executive Constantine, and several mayors, including Mayor Durkan, have declared states of emergency, they have broad power to pass proclamations in the interest of protecting the public during this public health crisis. They need to use their power to place a moratorium on all eviction filings so that people are not forced to expose themselves to COVID-19 in court or do not fall into homelessness due to the economic consequences of social distancing.
In addition, all levels of government should set aside resources for rental assistance to support workers who are seeing a reduction in wages or losing their jobs because of this crisis. Landlords should not be able to charge late fees if rent is paid late during this crisis. Sheriffs should stop executing any evictions.
Washington must act decisively and take reasonable actions to prevent the explosive spread of a coronavirus pandemic, including immediately enacting a moratorium on evictions.
Xochitl Maykovich is the Political Director of Washington Community Action Network. She has worked on several reforms of landlord-tenant laws on the state and local level.