As the end of Washington's eviction moratorium approaches, state lawmakers hope to stem the tide of a potential tsunami of evictions with a bill that would establish a "right to counsel" for tenants facing eviction statewide.
That's great! But it's not as great as it could be. The state bill, sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, would only provide lawyers for people making less than 200% of the federal poverty level, or around $53,000 for a family of four. Since landlords evict most people for non-payment of rent, that provision amounts to a pretty unnecessary means test. More worrisome is the fact that the bill wouldn't go into effect until next year, and that's assuming it passes the notoriously creaky Legislature in the first place. January of 2022 comes well after the state's eviction moratorium is scheduled to lift, and so the protections tenants need might come too late for many across the state.
With all that in mind, this afternoon the Seattle City Council will decide whether to provide this protection around here, at least.
The scope of the bill, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Andrew Lewis, is wider than the state's version. And, if passed, the proposal will be enacted more expediently, said Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. The broader scope and quicker timeline will be important if the eviction moratorium isn't extended, Witter said.
A 2019 University of Washington study found that tenants with legal representation were twice as likely to keep their housing, but only 10% of tenants facing evictions had a lawyer compared to 90% of landlords.
In general, eviction cases in Washington are a mess. Witter called unlawful detainer hearings a "kangaroo court," because the judges move through cases so quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours. The system is hard for people to navigate normally, especially when they don't have a right to an attorney, he said. With virtual hearings, the system is even more impossible for tenants, Witter explained.
"I don't know how tenants are going to be able to do it," Witter said. "We had a guy trying to navigate to get to a Zoom hearing yesterday and he was blind."
Though the eviction moratorium bans certain kinds of evictions, some landlords are finding loopholes to keep kicking out tenants.
And when the moratorium lifts, lawyers say evictions will flood the court. A report from the Washington State Bar News estimated that, if the moratorium wasn't renewed before January, around 170,000 evictions would have happened that month. That's more evictions than the state had in a 10-year period. The least the city could do is to ensure the people facing those evictions have representation.
The council bill passed out of the Sustainability and Renters Rights Committee last week on a 3-1 vote.
Ahead of the full council vote on Monday, there's a chance some council members could water down the bill with amendments to instill a means test similar to the state's right to counsel bill. Witter said that's because there's "some notion" on the council that providing a right to counsel violates the state Constitution's prohibition of the gift of public funds that bans local governments from giving money to anyone who isn't poor.
Witter found that idea ridiculous: "If the city funds a food bank and doesn’t ask how much the shoppers make, is that a violation of the gift of public funds?"
The city council will take the vote at Monday's 2:00 p.m. full council meeting. You can watch here.