At the end of March, Seattleites across the city had to pay their rent and mortgages in a period when nearly half a million Washingtonians had just lost their jobs. At the same time, the Seattle City Council was poised to vote on Councilmember Tammy Morales' resolution to freeze rents and mortgages.
Over the week before April 1st, emails flooded in—around 1,000 of them, from constituents across the city who were fearful about making their payments or worried about their tenants not being able to make those payments.
Most asked for a "yes" vote on the rent-and-mortgage-freeze resolution, not knowing it was a purely symbolic gesture and would not actually stop rent and mortgage payments.
Through a public records request, I gained access to those emails.
"There's a lot of sadness and fear in this batch," the public disclosure officer at the City of Seattle wrote.
He had divvied up my records into two installments. The second batch of emails will arrive in my inbox in May. In the first batch, I received 661 emails from Seattleites regarding rent, mortgage payments, the moratorium, and their anxiety.
Ninety percent of those emails were from renters. According to a report from the Seattle Time's Gene Balk, there are as many renters in Seattle as there are homeowners. Among the renters connected with these emails, only 8 percent were employed.
Another 18.5 percent of the renters described reduced hours and income or tenuous employment situations that could easily change for the worse. Forty-six percent of the renters had been laid off. And many were worried about making this month's rent.
From Beacon Hill:
I myself am working at one of the only restaurants still open in Georgetown and my wages have been slashed to ribbons. My partner is in the same industry and is without work indefinitely.
From a bartender in Belltown:
I’m a lifelong King County resident, currently living in downtown Seattle. A few weeks ago I was a bartender at Neon Boots in Belltown. Like thousands of other hospitality workers in Seattle, I lost my job and I have taken a sudden and steep pay decrease.
I am now facing a critical decision of choosing between paying rent, or freezing what little assets I have in order to prepare for / prevent the worst from happening to me (unexpected illness, medical emergency, homelessness). The trouble is that no matter what I will still be stuck with a bill that I will not be able to afford for very long if I do not return to work soon.
From the Capitol Hill area:
My rent and utilities will continue to be the same cost and my income is drastically decreased for I don’t know how long—as long as Coronavirus keeps me out of work and likely then some.
Let’s say, for example, my rent is $2,200 a month. My partner and I share this cost. And let’s say that together we are pulling in about $2,600/month through unemployment. That leaves us with $400 a month for our other expenses. This doesn’t cover the remaining bills we have: utilities, student loans, cell phone, pet costs, food and necessities. My student loans are nearly $400/month just on their own.
From a food service worker and freelance videographer in Wallingford:
I can’t pay the rent and nobody is going to give me a raise when this is over to pay back rent. I rent an ADU from a retired couple in Wallingford. I don’t want them to be hurt either, and I know that my rent makes up a good portion of their income.
Landlords and property managers made up just over 7 percent of the total emails in this batch. Of the landlords, 50 percent specified that they were unemployed or retired and that they relied on rent for their income.
Some were understanding of the situation, like this property manager in District 7 who called for a rent moratorium:
People are already flooding our inbox wondering what we are going to do to help with the rent crisis that is about to explode in reaction to COVID-19. In addition to those that have been laid off, there are people who's salary has been cut in half, reduced to the minimum wage, etc. Some tenants who have made salaries $90,000 have gotten their salaries drastically reduced.
It is scary to think of what will become of the future. My income depends on tenants paying their rent. I don't get paid until the home owner gets paid. Freezing evictions for 60 days is not enough. It is evident that unemployment may continue to rise and we will be put into a recession. This resolution will help them be able to make payments in the long-distance future.
And from these District 2 landlords:
"My husband and I own a house in Southeast Seattle, which we share with two renters. Our renters both work in service industry jobs and were laid off suddenly when the orders came restricting gatherings. We have decided not to charge rent for the duration of the crisis regardless of how the council votes, but we are also worried about our ability to pay the mortgage.
Fortunately, we are both still able to work from home at the moment, but our incomes and job security have both been significantly impacted by coronavirus and the near future is uncertain. We know many in the community are impacted much more severely than we are.
Many were simply afraid for themselves:
Please consider the impacts on small landlords of allowing renters to not pay rent, for extended periods of time. I’m not a corporate landlord, I don’t have the ability to just absorb a loss like that. I’m retired and the rental unit I have provides 30% of my income. I will work with my tenants who have been laid off, because I want to keep them, and I want to keep them housed during this difficult time. But I can’t afford to go on three to six months, with no income!
And then there were the people like this landlord who made the subject of his email "Not all renters are poor or out of work." He started off strong with a reasonable argument that boils down to, "Hey, maybe don't paint all us landlords with a broad brush":
"I have a variety of renters. Some of them are well paid and their employment is continuing. Others have reduced income until the stimulus or unemployment arrives.
Some of them make more money than I do. Would you please resist the temptation to characterize ALL RENTERS as poor and needy and out of work, and ALL LANDLORDS as greedy heartless rich money grubbers.
His argument lost a bit of weight (or at least empathy) when he listed the employment status of his tenants:
My plan is to expect those who are fully employed, or have been making a good living for many years, and have $100K in savings to make the rent payment. Those out of work or with reduced work I am going to ask they pay what they can, and defer the rest until later. Some will get unemployment, an additional $600/week, and $1200 per head stimulus bonus.
Here is my current list:
- a church worker and husband employed at Starbucks: Finances OK
- a civil engineer, a design consultant for a big-time design firm, and a social worker: Finances Fantastic!
- a tattoo artist and a piercing technician: Income at zero
- a king county employee making over 100K per year: Finances Excellent Gets annual pay raises like clockwork.
- a licensed electrician making $47/hr: Construction not [yet] shut down should be ok
- an engineer at the naval shipyard making 75k: Just got a pay raise
- a hospital cook + part-time bartender wife + veteran on a partial disability: Some difficulty, the bartender called me
While not all renters are poor or out of work, plenty of renters share housing with people who are out of work. Around 23 percent of the emails were from people whose partners or roommates had lost their jobs.
One woman in District 3 whose roommate was furloughed still has her own job but was "struggling with [her roommate] not being able to contribute rent." Another woman who described herself as "precariously employed" cannot cover her furloughed roommate's half of the rent and bills.
A man who works in a management position at a food bank has kept his position and is still working, according to his email. None of his four housemates are, however. They rent "what is essentially a dilapidated slum" for $2,300 per month. He wrote:
All of my housemates lost their jobs in an instant — they were told by text not to report to work, that they would not be receiving pay, and so on: our housing stability, already shaky, was lost. I am now the only person working, making what is essentially minimum wage.
An employee at the Pacific Northwest Ballet was furloughed until August. Her two housemates also work in the arts and were laid off:
Without assistance, our household income will be reduced to less than $1,000/month (formerly more than $9,000/month) while our rent stays at $2,550/month. To simply prohibit evictions right now is not enough. When that is lifted we will still be unemployed and suddenly saddled with an unmanageable bill, so we will face eviction then.
While the city and the state have an eviction moratorium in place so that no one can be evicted in the coming months, rent will still accrue and turn into debt. That's why so many people are urging elected officials to flat-out stop rental and mortgage payments.
A Seattle University student wrote: "We already have debt, and having more debt on debt is not something we're interested in at all."
A District 4 renter put it bluntly:
I am able to pay rent for April, but my family is missing 2/3 of our income until businesses can open again. We currently have enough to pay the last 3 months on our lease, but at that point we will be homeless with no savings.
This is only a snapshot of the emails that spanned March 27 to March 31. The resolution that the majority of emails were in favor of passed unanimously on Monday, March 30. Unfortunately, all the city council can do is stand in support of a rent and mortgage moratorium. The decision to actually freeze rents and mortgages will have to come from the state or federal level. Rent is still due each month, and people across Seattle still can't pay.