We've come a long way since those heated February council meetings about Councilmember Kshama Sawant's winter eviction moratorium. In the weeks after that passed, Mayor Jenny Durkan (who refused to sign Sawant's legislation) implemented a city-wide eviction moratorium until the COVID-19 crisis was over. Gov. Jay Inslee followed suit with a statewide eviction moratorium. Both of those have been extended until June 4.
But, even if evictions are put on hold, rent will be due.
Council President Lorena Gonzalez proposed a bill that will "provide a defense" to tenants who are evicted up to six months after the city's eviction moratorium ends. Effectively, anyone who is required to vacate their housing during this period of time (currently, from June through December) can use COVID-19 as a defense. To be clear, if a tenant is violent or a threat they can still be evicted.
It's meant to keep people, many of whom have seen big hits to their income, in their homes, and off the streets. It passed unanimously. At this rate, it will go into effect from June through December. And, the winter evictions moratorium, which was passed earlier this year, bans evictions from December through March.
As you can imagine, landlords were sweating.
Landlords flooded the public comment line with worries about how this legislation "encourages bad actors." Many were worried that this was incentivizing rent strikes and that the council should focus on rental assistance. Roger Valdez, a developer lobbyist, said that this bill was "sending the signal that paying rent isn't important" and "you would not solve the hunger problem by abolishing shoplifting laws."
One landlord, Malik Elbaz, said that if this passes he will think three times as hard about renting to low-income tenants in the future because of the pain he will likely experience during this no-eviction period.
On the flip side, Edmund Witter, the manager of the Housing Justice Project, called this defense a "necessary pause." He recognized that there needs to be a solution for both landlords and tenants but that will take time. Eviction defense will provide relief while that solution is worked out. Witter works with United Way's Home Base program which provides rental assistance in King County. Home Base currently has a $5 million program to cover April rent. Around 7,000 people applied for that in 48 hours, Witter said. Only around 2,000 of those families can get rental assistance. More assistance is on the way but not everyone will receive it.
Unsurprisingly, there was resistance from Councilmember Alex Pedersen. One of his four proposed amendments, which he submitted "to reconcile opposing views," according to him, tried to exempt small landlords from the eviction defense. A small landlord was classified as someone who owns four or fewer properties. Pedersen proposed this same amendment to the winter eviction moratorium legislation, too. It passed that time. This time it failed 8-1.
Gonzalez was not in support of this since "all tenants and all people are required to pay their rent may be suffering from financial hardships," she said. "That is true regardless of complex and unit. My goal here is to really make sure this defense, which is time-capped in nature, is accessible to the greatest number of people possible."
Every council member who voted for this same amendment during the winter eviction moratorium vote felt the need to chime in about why this situation, and their vote, was different (hint: because this is an "emergency" aka this is "temporary"). This song and dance happened during each of Pedersen's amendments. The council meeting dragged on.
Ultimately, after hours of back and forths and unnecessary thank yous, the council voted unanimously to pass the bill.