Having access to a lawyer helps tenants stay in their homes.
Having access to a lawyer helps tenants stay in their homes. ROB DOBI

With Seattle's eviction moratorium due to lift at the end of March, Councilmember Kshama Sawant is drawing up legislation to guarantee Seattle tenants the right to counsel in eviction proceedings.

Sawant wants to extend the moratorium until at least the end of 2021 to give renters a chance to catch their breath and maybe try to catch up on rent, but because catching up on months and months of backlogged rent won’t be possible for many, she's adding in right-to-counsel legislation as additional protection.

"This could be a human catastrophe on a scale we haven’t seen since the 1930s," Sawant said during her sustainability and renters’ rights committee this week.

Right now, Seattle tenants don't have a guaranteed right to a lawyer during eviction proceedings, even though we yelled about it on Slog years ago. No one ever listens, smh.

“We know that only 8% of Washingtonian tenants actually have legal representation in their eviction cases,” Lydia Rubenstein from Plymouth Healing Communities told Sawant’s committee.

“This is often why landlords are able to get away with evicting people for amounts of money such as $2, this is why we have to pass right to counsel,” Rubenstein said.

Eviction proceedings happen quickly, faster than most cases, said Edmund Witter with the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project (HJP). People are shocked to find themselves without a home after one hearing, barely having had a chance to speak up.

In a 2017 report called “Losing Home,” the HJP found that Seattle tenants with legal representation “were about twice as likely to remain in their homes” compared to those without representation.

"Oftentimes we see tenants who are being evicted because of owing small amounts of money, [or because they] didn't understand the legal process—which is overly complicated—or they had other barriers," Witter told the Stranger.

These cases usually result in default judgments from the court. When a tenant doesn't respond to a landlord's complaint in a timely manner, or at all, judges will usually grant the landlord a win in the case. Over half of eviction proceedings end this way, according to Witter. Lawyers can still help reverse those decisions, but "it's not easy," Witter said. Neither is access to lawyers.

Seattle currently spends $605,000 of its budget on eviction protection. Around $200,000 of that goes to the HJP, which is responsible for managing around 90% of eviction defense in the city. But the HJP is underfunded, and it only has eight attorneys to handle the current eviction caseload in the city.

In 2020, the HJP handled 2,282 cases, Witter said. While the organization can use pro-bono attorneys to help with that work, “there’s a limit to that,” Witter wrote in an email. Many cases slip through the cracks because HJP just doesn’t have the capacity.

“At the moment,” Witter said, “we aren't keeping up by any means.” And that’s before the impending “tsunami” of evictions crashes down on Seattle.

Before 2021, only around ten cities in the nation had a right to counsel in place. Since New York City passed a version of the law in 2013, 86% of tenants represented by counsel stayed in their homes, according to a report presented to the committee by John Pollock at the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

"We really are seeing an incredible groundswell on this issue," Pollock said. Across the country, cities and states from Cincinnati and Detroit to New Jersey and are considering passing this kind of policy. In the Washington state legislature, this year Sen. Patty Kuderer introduced a big renter protection bill that also includes a right to counsel.

In Seattle, the bill is still a draft, so the council needs to hash out details around the legislation such as whether it should require some sort of means test, how much it will cost the city, and how it will function. For instance, a nonprofit could contract with the city, or the City Attorney's Office could take on the issue.

The eviction moratorium will likely be renewed again, but, at some point, all of that rent is going to come due and no $600 or $1,400 stimulus check is going to be enough to chip away at that debt.

"We want to make sure that someone has adequate representation, and make sure that their needs are met," Witter said during the committee meeting, "because right now, I'm not sure that the court is prepared to handle it."