Tenant advocates threaten to evict lawmakers who dont prioritize renters well-being.
On Wednesday morning, tenant advocates threatened to evict lawmakers who don't "prioritize renters' well-being." Washington Community Action Network

A few years ago Washington had some of the worst protections for renters in the country. While the state has made progress, its laws still overwhelmingly tip the balance of power toward landlords. Outside of Seattle, Auburn, Federal Way, and Burien, for instance, landlords can boot month-to-month tenants for no reason with only 20 days notice. And even within Seattle, landlords can kick you out at the end of any lease without giving a reason (for now).

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But if all goes well this year with HB 1236 and SB 5160, then the state will offer some of the strongest blanket protections around. The former bill would require landlords to give a good reason before kicking a tenant to the curb, and the latter would give the state's poorest tenants an attorney once they're out there.

At this point in the life of those two bills, however, all is not exactly going well.

As I explained last month, Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri carries HB 1236, or the "just-cause" eviction protection bill. The proposal would require landlords to provide between 60 and 90 days of notice before kicking someone out of a rental, and also to cite one of 16 "good" reasons for doing so. Those reasons are extremely broad and very landlord friendly. (One of the "just" reasons for eviction is a "legitimate economic or business reason" under certain conditions.) This law would apply to the end of certain leases and to month-to-month tenancies, though not to the end of a first-time lease.

Since we last spoke, the Senate got ahold of the bill and weakened the legislation a little more. The current version now allows a landlord to evict a tenant who fails to sign a lease renewal offered with 30 days notice. Over the phone last week, Macri said she could live with that language. "A system that incentivizes tenants to enter into leases is as protective for tenants as it is for landlords," she said. "It’s helpful to be in a lease, in that they give everyone some certainty."

The House concurred on the Senate's tinkering on Tuesday, with the same three Democrats voting against it this time as last time: Reps. Dave Paul, Mike Chapman, and Alicia Rule. The bill now awaits the Governor's signature.

Though tenant advocates champion Macri's bill while begrudgingly accepting the watered down bits, they express deep concern over the changes the House made to Bellevue Sen. Patty Kuderer's SB 5160. That proposal would set up the mechanism to pay landlords for back rent accrued during the pandemic, stand up a temporary eviction resolution pilot program to handle disputes over nonpayment of rent, and make Washington the first state to offer attorneys for all poor people facing evictions by 2022.

As the Seattle Times reported over the weekend, the House Housing committee amended the bill to include a clause that would lift Gov. Inslee's eviction moratorium on June 30.

Tenant advocates worry that renters who fell behind during the pandemic won't see the benefits from these proposals before the state's eviction moratorium lifts and potentially unleashes a wave of evictions. On Wednesday those fears prompted Washington Community Action Network to stand on the steps of Seattle City Hall and issue an eviction notice of their own to "lawmakers who don't stand with renters."

At the action, Seattle renter Chelsea Rabelas told a story about long-haul COVID-19 preventing her from returning to work as a dancer and stage manager. She said she and her partner are over $17,000 behind in rent, and they'll need time and an attorney to work out a payment plan with their landlord, or else face eviction.

King County renter Sarah Stuart said an "unjust eviction" caused by a landlord's "miscalculations" rendered her homeless for three years. "You simply cannot get housing with an eviction and rent debt on your record," she said.

According to the Household Pulse Survey, over 160,000 Washington households owe back rent.

Erin Fenner, communications director for Washington CAN, said the group wants to see the eviction moratorium last until the end of the year because the last round of rental assistance took months to work through Congress, and then it took months for local governments to distribute the funds. "I have renters who were behind from March and didn’t get caught up until December," Fenner said.

Once the moratorium lifts, landlords can start evicting tenants who are behind on rent. Though Kuderer's bill offers a mediation route, the Times quotes the Office of Civil Legal Aid director saying that "it would be impossible to have all the lawyers needed for tenants by July 1."

And even if landlords and tenants work out payment plans through the mediation process, we're talking about thousands of people who haven't been able to afford rent all year suddenly needing to come up with next month's rent plus a couple hundred dollars on top of that. "The folks I’ve been working with have been able to get six months covered, but they’re behind again. These are vulnerable folks who are unemployed, in debt, and in some cases dealing with different immigration statuses, so they're ineligible for a lot of the federal programs," Fenner said.

Fenner and other tenant advocates want the Senate to scrap the amendment the House added.

Kuderer told the Times the amendment is "not the right policy and it’s just going to end up doing far more harm than good."

Democratic leadership in both chambers praised the Legislature's work on housing so far, but didn't make a commitment to keep or trash the amendment. At a press conference Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig said the chamber still plans to "work through" the details on the amendments to Kuderer's bill.

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House Housing chair Rep. Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds) said he supported the amendment to end the moratorium on June 30, which ranking minority member Rep. Michelle Caldier (R-Port Orchard) proposed. Over the phone, Peterson said the amendment does nothing to stop the Governor from making a new proclamation if rising COVID-19 numbers makes it necessary to extend the eviction moratorium past June. "I think everyone is hoping we don’t have to do that, but if we do have to do that then the Governor still has that power to make that happen," he said.

Peterson acknowledged "some legitimacy" to advocate concerns about the state distributing rental assistance and standing up mediation programs too slowly, but said the Department of Commerce is "keeping their foot on the gas" in that regard and "more of that funding is getting out."

If the economy and the virus aren't "heading in the right direction" toward the end of June, however, Peterson said he believed Inslee would "do the right thing," and Peterson pledged his "100% support" toward that end.