The wave of evictions could push thousands into homelessness.
The flood of evictions could push thousands into homelessness. ROB DOBI

Landlord lobbyists and tenant advocates don't agree on much, but both parties have been screaming their heads off about the same thing for a month now.

Once Gov. Jay Inslee lifts his statewide eviction moratorium, which is set to expire in August, landlords will initiate a massive wave of evictions across Washington. The evictions could push thousands into homelessness, exacerbating an already intractable crisis as the deadly coronavirus pandemic continues to surge.

State and local officials say they’re aware of this problem, but most policies appear insufficient or prohibitively expensive without more federal aid.

The Problem

Tenant advocates estimate that 50,000 Washington renters may face eviction once the statewide moratorium lifts. Erin Fenner, who runs communications at Washington Community Action Network, admits the math is "squishy" but calls the number “conservative.”

50,000 doesn't sound too far off.

According to a Seattle Times review of the Household Pulse Survey, 208,000 renters in the Seattle metro area alone—“which includes King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties”—say they cannot make July’s rent. 

With the moratorium in place, landlords cannot kick out tenants just because they can’t pay, but their rent debt still accrues. When the moratorium expires, back-rent and regular-ass rent will suddenly come due.

Scrounging up money for all that will be difficult if not impossible for many. We know that half of Seattle-area renters already pay more than they can afford in rent, with over 57,300 Seattle-area households giving more than 30% of their paycheck to their landlords, and around 53,000 giving more than half of their paychecks to their landlords.

And that's what it's like when they have income. Renters tend to work in the industries hardest hit by the stay-home orders, and nearly 400,000 people in King County alone have filed new unemployment claims since March. (Over 70,000 Washingtonians are still waiting for a check, though the state claims they’ll clear that backlog by the end of the month.) Extended unemployment benefits dry up at the end of July, so anyone floating on that extra $600 per week will be screwed come August. These issues especially apply to undocumented communities, who suffer from disproportionally high COVID-19 infection rates as they try to stay housed without access to federal benefits.

Though the state moratorium requires landlords to offer tenants payment plans, eviction attorneys worry those plans won’t hold up in court after Inslee's proclamation expires.

When thousands of people suddenly can’t pay months of rent they already can’t afford, and when courts reject the payment plans, landlords will start evicting tenants en masse for nonpayment of rent. Mass evictions will mean mass homelessness. A 2018 Seattle Women’s Commission survey found that most evicted tenants become homeless, “with 37.5% completely unsheltered, 25.0% living in a shelter or transitional housing, and 25.0% staying with family or friends.”

Who Is Doing What About It?

Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk didn’t offer many details, but he said the Governor’s Office and the Department of Commerce are working out a plan for life after the eviction moratorium. That plan “would include things like rental assistance, homeowner and business foreclosure prevention, small business grants and HUD grants,” he said.

“However,” he added, “without assistance from the federal government, we do not believe the state will have the resources necessary to meet the full need.” That doesn't seem like such a wild guess, given that the state is looking down the barrel of a $9 billion budget hole over the course of the next four years.

On Tuesday, Inslee announced that the state directed $100 million in CARES Act funds “to provide rent assistance to low-income renters at risk of homelessness, using an existing framework to send rent payments directly to landlords," which is cool, but Fenner thinks we'd need at least $1 billion to adequately address the issue.

Cities and counties are currently working on their own plans, too. The best of those plans buy time for savvy tenants who understand the court process and who keep good records on the way the coronavirus has hit their finances, but they ultimately don’t solve the crisis.

Last week the King County Council passed an ordinance that allows residential and commercial tenants in unincorporated King County to use COVID-19 impacts as a defense for nonpayment of rent in eviction court through March of 2021. (As you can probably tell from the specificity of that sentence, the legislation is good but not great. Tenants sent to court would still have an eviction hearing on their record, which could hurt their chances of finding another place down the line.) The ordinance also requires landlords to offer tenants “a reasonable repayment plan,” and “provides an additional defense to eviction if a landlord does not offer a reasonable repayment plan.”

Seattle passed similar legislation in May. The city’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance adds an additional layer of protection, preventing landlords from serving no-cause eviction notices to month-to-month tenants, which they can do everywhere else in the state besides Burien and Federal Way. However, though tenants in Seattle have some of the strongest protections in Washington (which isn't saying much!), there are still loopholes.

A tenant could fall behind on rent and demand a payment plan, but the landlord could refuse by just letting the lease expire, said Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. Witter points to a letter Seattle resident Mike Fulop wrote to Seattle City Councilmembers asking them to close that loophole so he and his mother don’t get evicted.

Fulop's lease expires at the beginning of August, and his landlord plans to just wait until then to start the eviction process. “My landlord told me that they will not let me renew my lease unless I pay everything that I owe, including all of the late fees, even though the state moratorium banned landlords from collecting late fees during this time,” he wrote.

Putting imperfect protections aside for a moment, in their big supplemental budget last week, the King County Council approved up to $2 million for rental assistance. King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed spending $1.5 million of that on a $5 million expansion of United Way’s Home Base program, which they say helped 2,000 households keep a roof over their head for a couple months. Around 7,000 people applied for the program 48 hours after it launched, and applications have since been paused.

The executive has also distributed $1.7 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) CARES Act funding for rental assistance, with $1.1 million going to South King County and $600,000 going to North/East King County, according to a spokesperson.

Tenants In Suburban Cities Could Get Screwed Without More Tenant Protections

Federal Way communications director Tyler Hemstreet said the city is “well aware” of the coming eviction wave. Thanks to the passage of the Stable Homes initiative last fall, which banned no-cause evictions, the city is situated similarly to Seattle in terms of current tenant protections. On top of that, they’re using their $145,550 in CDBG funding to fortify a “traditional rent assistance and a homelessness diversion program,” which they currently fund through Human Services grants to organizations.

“We are closely watching how the state will be proceeding with rental protections, and any proposed ordinances from the City will likely mirror or reinforce what comes down at the state level,” Hemstreet added.

Other cities in the county, however, don't have hard plans to pair tenant protections with whatever rental assistance funding the federal government decides to dole out.

A spokesperson for Bellevue said the city isn't considering legislation similar to Seattle and King County "at this time."

Noting that “on a good day” 50% of Bellevue's renters pay more in rent than they can afford, Mayor Lynne Robinson said the city has designated about $657,000 towards contracts with agencies to provide “emergency financial assistance to Bellevue residents," which she said provided rental assistance "for many of our residents."

She also said the city refers people to nonprofits such as Bellevue Lifespring. Executive director Jennifer Fischer said Lifespring, which hasn't received any money from the city, has helped 114 families pay rent since March. A little less than half of the city’s 58,000 households rent, which means about 27,000 families are struggling.

In Auburn, the mayor and city council have approved proclamations backing the state eviction moratorium and directing the mayor to look for new "strategies and approaches" to help tenants who are behind on their rent as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it remains to be seen whether Auburn tenants will be able to use the pandemic as a defense in court after the state moratorium is over. Auburn's legislation makes a general connection between coronavirus and falling behind on rent, and a city spokesperson said "the tenant would most certainly use this as a defense in eviction court."

The spokesperson added that the city, which has 8,000 renting households, directed nearly $500,000 in initial and supplemental federal funds toward local programs offering rental assistance.

How Should We Fix It?

In exchange for lining the pockets of landlords with $1 billion in tax-payer-funded rental assistance, Fenner argued that state lawmakers should enact just-cause protections statewide and make permanent the eviction ban for nonpayment of rent.

Without those tenant protections, landlords will just take that money and file 20-day no-cause eviction notices “without oversight or repercussions,” she said.

“This this is how it always goes,” Fenner added. “The burden is always on the renters. They have to find the rental assistance, and they have to get it in time to not get evicted. I’d be very excited about rental assistance if we also made sure that tenants can stay in their homes.”

If state lawmakers hold a special session before August, which is highly unlikely, they could pass Rep. Nicole Macri’s statewide just-cause bill and make any necessary appropriations for rental assistance. But Fenner said lawmakers have been slow to act on tenant issues, even though they directly effect nearly 40% of the state's households.

"There's just not enough renters in elected office who understand this perspective," Fenner added.