People need the time to catch up on back rent.
People need the time to catch up on back rent. ABLOKHIN / GETTYIMAGES.COM

A tsunami of evictions will hit Seattle in the coming year without bold action by the Seattle City Council. Tens of thousands of evictions, disproportionately in communities of color, will likely overwhelm the courts, shelters, and streets, as people lose their homes. This would be a human catastrophe on a scale that the city hasn’t seen in a century, on top of the unprecedented economic costs that our city would be forced to bear for shelters, emergency housing/food, healthcare emergencies, and public safety crises.

But this catastrophe can be prevented, and our city’s elected legislators have the responsibility to act. It’s imperative that the Seattle City Council pass Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s citywide eviction moratorium through the end of 2021.

Even before the state of emergency, nearly three in five renters nationally could not come up with $400 in an emergency. Almost half of Seattle tenants were rent burdened, paying more than 30% of their incomes on rent.

Now, the housing crisis is much worse, and it will remain dire for tens of thousands of renters, especially in communities of color, well after vaccination programs gain momentum.

Nationally, about 12 million renters owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities. Some 28% of all US renters started this year with rent debt. In the Black community, pummeled even harder by the economic recession, 53% of households are in rent debt.

These debts will take at least months, but more realistically, years, to deal with.

“There is very little money left over for food and car payments, let alone... any potential medical bills. I’m at a loss and cannot imagine being able to live like this for much longer,” Logan, a north Capitol Hill renter, wrote as part of a community petition to Mayor Durkan last month.

Another petition signer, Charles from northeast Seattle, wrote that “I am currently 2 months behind in rent and again behind on my car payments. After spending my savings and cashing out my 401k my safety net is gone. I have reached out to almost every organization for assistance and have been blessed with a few hundred dollars here and there towards my rent and utilities. I have signed up with every city funded program and have started to receive food stamps, something I have never done. Without this moratorium I would be on the streets and facing thousands in legal bills fighting it. This hold on evictions is the only thing keeping my landlord at the table as I struggle to catch up.”

Logan and Charles were among more than 2,000 people who signed the petition to Mayor Durkan last month, calling on her to renew the moratorium.

Renter organizing succeeded in getting the Mayor to extend protections. But Durkan only extended it for three months - through March. Beyond that, renters like Charles and Logan face the prospect of losing their homes, producing relentless anxiety and fear. That’s why the full-year halt of evictions is urgently needed.

And it’s not just renters who recognize the dire need for a full-year halt to evictions.

Evan, a West Seattle homeowner, rents out a portion of his home. He wrote on the petition to the Mayor, “I support extending the rent moratorium. It is immoral for landlords to kick out renters during a pandemic for not being able to pay rent when so many are losing their jobs due to no fault of their own.”

Without a bold response on many fronts, the impending tidal wave of evictions will sharply exacerbate racist gentrification, disproportionately displacing low-income people of color from their homes. A study published by the City of Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association found that low-income women, particularly those who reside in majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods, face an increased risk of eviction. The study also found that Black renters experience eviction at a rate 4.5 times higher than what their population in the city would suggest.

Passing a year-long eviction moratorium is a necessary first step for preserving Seattleites’ safety and well-being during this health and financial crisis. In addition, we need to fight for a just recovery to ensure that low-income people of color and working people do not pay for the fallout of this pandemic and financial crisis. This includes establishing the legal right for all tenants to be represented in eviction court. Right now, Seattle tenants often have to go up against their landlord’s attorney in court without their own legal representation. In New York City, San Francisco, and Newark, New Jersey, tenants have organized and won the right to counsel in eviction proceedings. Sawant’s office is bringing forward legislation for the same rights for Seattle renters.

We also need to fight to cancel rent and mortgages to ensure that the economic crisis does not lead to massive debt and evictions for Seattle renters. We need renters and all community members in support of bold legislative action to address this crisis to attend the Seattle City Council Renter’s Rights Committee on January 26th at 2 p.m., when Sawant’s full-year eviction moratorium bill will be discussed. Members of the public can sign up to speak at the committee meeting beginning two hours before the meeting begins.

Seattle City Council must pass a strong moratorium on evictions through at least the end of 2021. While our housing crisis has been brewing for decades, it is now at a boiling point. City Council must stand with renters, who constitute a majority of residents in our city, by stopping evictions for at least the rest of this year.

*All these other people signed onto this op-ed, too. Organizations listed for identification purposes only.

Kshama Sawant, Seattle City Councilmember
Kate Rubin, Executive Director of Be:Seattle
Violet Lavatai, Executive Director, Tenants Union of Washington
Paula Lukaszek, President of Washington Federation of State Employees 1488
Carolyn Riley-Payne, president, Seattle/King County NAACP
Sierra Parsons, Communications and Development at W-BLOC (Washington Building Leaders of Change)
Dr. Brandon Peplinski, President of Resident and Fellow Physician Union - Northwest (RFPU)
Brenna Stroup, RFPU Executive Director
Karla Esquivel, owner, Andaluz Boutique Shop
Shirley Henderson, co-owner, Squirrel Chops Coffee and Cuts
Matt Remle, Mazaska Talks
Renee Gordon, The Chateau
Samantha Thompson, UAW Local 4121
Arianna Laureano, Cancel Rent and Mortgages WA
Shemona Moreno, Art and Movement Building, 350 Seattle
Oliver Miska, Seattle Democratic Socialists of America
LouDella Bowen, Brighton Apartments
Katie Wilson, Transit Riders Union