Anquida Adams and her landlord didn't get along. She rented a room in Seattle out of the landlord's home from November of last year until a few weeks ago. Despite her landlord's hot and cold nature—accusatory and hostile one minute, sweet the next—Adams didn't leave of her own volition, she told me in a Zoom call. She was trying to save up money to find a new, better place.
But in February, clients at the consulting firm she founded started dropping, and she couldn't make rent. As a member of the Renters' Rights Committee, Adams knew she had options. She pointed her landlord to rent relief resources that only landlords can apply for, but her landlord refused. Adams then found a payment plan that she and her landlord could work out together, but later the landlord decided she was still unhappy with it. Even though the eviction moratorium was still in place, the landlord still tried to kick Adams out, threatening to lock the fridge and the bathroom and turn off the gas if Adams didn't pay her by a certain time.
Ultimately, her landlord gave Adams under a week to vacate the house. Adams decided her only option was to leave.
Eighty-seven percent of evictions in King County occur because of nonpayment of rent. That number is likely higher because renters like Adams leave before their landlords file an official eviction that goes on their record. According to estimates from the United States Census Bureau, over 270,000 Washingtonians in renter-occupied units had no confidence they would make rent last month.
With Washington's eviction moratorium scheduled to end on June 30, and with backlogged rent coming due July 1, lawyers and lawmakers fear nonpayment of rent evictions will spike. But rent-unstable Seattleites can breathe a little easier, because pre-existing Seattle City Council legislation and new rental protections coming down the pike from Councilmember Tammy Morales could stave off evictions for a little longer.
Morales, who recently sponsored legislation to close Seattle's just cause lease loophole, proposed a piece of legislation this week to help stop the wave of nonpayment of rent evictions that will hit Seattle renters post-COVID-19. Morales's bill, part of her "tenant bill of rights," will establish a legal defense in eviction hearings for any low-income tenant who falls behind on rent due to financial hardships incurred by the pandemic.
"We need this because the rent debt crisis is looming," Morales said over the phone, "We’ve got thousands of people who have accrued debt in King County. We have to figure out what we’re going to do about that."
If this sounds familiar, that's because the council passed similar legislation last May.
Back when the pandemic was but a wee babe, Council President Lorena Gonzalez created legislation for a COVID-19 eviction defense that the council passed unanimously (with some grumbling from Councilmember Alex Pedersen, of course). That bill functions similarly to Morales's, except Gonzalez's bill only lasts for six months after the eviction moratorium ends.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant's winter eviction moratorium will also protect renters from December through March, however that bill only applies to rental properties owned by big landlords—someone who owns more than four properties.
"Gonzales's bill will provide a buffer for quite a while," said Edmund Witter, the managing attorney of the King County Bar Association's Housing Justice Project. "But there’s something to say in having an underlying policy that says the city doesn’t want people to fall behind or get evicted for COVID hardships at this time."
Any protections against eviction after the moratorium will give state and local governments more time to dole out rental assistance that's been sorely delayed. For reference, King County just allowed renters to start signing up for its $145 million rental assistance lottery last week.
Morales's bill will also establish an additional "rent-mitigation fund" that can help chip away at rent debt for low-income tenants. The city's budget will dictate how much money goes into that fund.
Landlords, like Adams's landlord, have plenty of funds they can access to recoup their losses, too, Witter said, but landlords simply aren't accessing those funds.
"A lot of these resources don’t get used," Witter said citing a few landlord relief programs the Legislature passed this year, plus pre-existing city and county programs. "The only way to get people to use [these funds] is if you really require it."
That's where the eviction defense comes in.
Aside from extending the COVID hardship defense after current legislation expires, Morales's bill requires landlords to include information about the existence of the eviction defense in their eviction notices to tenants.
"It ensures that the landlord knows that tenants have this right and it educates the tenant that they have this right," Morales said.
Morales's legislative aide, Devin Silvernail, said that the notice may be "enough of a deterrent for a landlord to find another way forward, like rental assistance or some other form of mediation with their tenant," Silvernail said. He joked that he had thought about calling this the "inception defense."
In addition to the notice, the eviction defense itself makes nonpayment of rent evictions harder.
"If you can’t evict someone what are you going to do?" Witter said. "You’re going to access resources that will compensate you."
Witter said these eviction defenses add "some muscle" to the right to counsel legislation the council approved earlier this year, which grants any low-income tenant facing eviction access to an attorney.
What the work mostly boils down to, though, is not some big courtroom battle, but rather Witter and other HJP attorneys helping tenants and their landlords navigate bureaucracy to find rental assistance funds.
"It’s a strange thing where we’re facilitating landlords getting their money," Witter said.
For Morales, equity is a big concern, since King County landlords evict Black and Latino renters at disproportionally high rates. "When the avalanche of evictions happens, it will be people of color kicked out and becoming homeless."
Morales hopes Councilmember Kshama Sawant's Sustainability & Renters' Rights committee will hear this legislation next week. She also wants the council to vote on this bill and her legislation to close the just cause loophole before the eviction moratorium ends on June 30.