Newly elected Mayor Bruce Harrell has a big decision to make by next week: He can either lift Seattle’s eviction moratorium and watch a potential tsunami of evictions roll in, keep the eviction moratorium in place and piss off landlords, or rewrite a new moratorium that strikes a “balance” between keeping people housed during a COVID surge and reducing the number of small-time landlords tempted to sell off their properties due to lack of payment. As of Jan. 4, Harrell did not have an answer for thousands of tenants whose housing is on the line.
Though the state’s eviction moratorium ended on Oct. 31, Seattle’s version is set to end January 15. Seattle’s moratorium protects residential, nonprofit and small-business tenants from eviction for non-payment of rent. However, tenants can still accumulate rent debt.
For example, if a tenant in a market rate one-bedroom apartment in Seattle had not paid rent since the start of the moratorium, that tenant would now face nearly $40,000 in rental debt, based on the average rent of $1,800 per month. That kind of debt can be difficult to pay off while also needing to make rent every month.
Last year, a large injection of federal rental relief funds stemmed the tide a bit. A spokesperson for the Seattle Office of Housing said that between July 1, 2021 and Sept. 30, 2021, the city and its partners distributed a total of $19.8 million in Emergency Rental Assistance to about 5,200 households impacted by the pandemic. King County has distributed about $149 million to over 27,000 households since the start of last year.
However, despite all that money going out, today the Seattle Times reported that the county said about 10,200 tenants and 146 landlords are still waiting for relief. In November, King County requested at least $120 million more to cover the need.
According to the Times, the county will have enough money to pay off requests from the landlords, but it may run out of funds before assisting all the tenants. Approximately 96,000 renters in the Seattle-Metro area said they were behind on rent, according to a Dec. 2021 survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
So, What’s Harrell Going to Do, and When Is He Going to Do It?
Former Mayor Jenny Durkan extended the eviction moratorium six times since its start in March of 2020. Most recently, Durkan pushed the September cutoff past the end of her term, which set up the next mayor to make a crucial decision just two weeks after assuming power.
“In a perfect world, I would have had more than a week to do this work,” Harrell said in a discussion after the city clerk ceremonially swore him in on Tuesday.
Just 11 days before the deadline, the mayor did not have an answer, but he said Seattleites could expect a decision from his office in the next week that "balances" the protection of “vulnerable residents,” who may end up homeless as a result of lifting the current moratorium, and “vulnerable landlords,” who may end up selling their units due to lack of rental payments.
Durkan never quite struck that “balance” in pleasing both tenants and landlords with the moratorium. When she last extended it, the Rental Housing Association of Washington and the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association released a joint statement criticizing the move. Both landlord organizations still want the moratorium to end.
“Millions in rental assistance, thorough laws and programs like ERPP are already established for people to move forward. Thanks to these programs, Washington has not experienced an increase in evictions nor has such a wave been seen elsewhere in the country,” RHAWA and WMFHA said in a joint statement to The Stranger.
On the other side, the Stay Housed Stay Healthy coalition celebrated Durkan’s decision. Throughout the pandemic, the coalition of progressive activists pressured Durkan many times to extend the moratorium.
With Harrell now in the driver’s seat and another variant on the rise, on Jan. 6 the coalition sent a letter to him advocating for another extension, this time until the end of the ongoing health crisis.
“While the moratoriums have been life saving, it will benefit everyone to enact a longer-term extension so that renters can make a financial recovery plan for themselves and their family without fearing that they could be pushed into homelessness in just a few months,” read the letter, which 40 progressive organizations signed.
A Question of "Balance"
Though the coalition remains optimistic, Harrell’s comments on balancing the interests of renters and landlords did not suggest an upcoming victory for the housing justice advocates.
Katie Wilson, the General Secretary of the Transit Rider Union, which is a part of the Stay Housed coalition, questioned if balance should be the goal in the “asymmetric power relationship” between renters who could lose their homes and landlords who could lose some revenue.
In Harrell’s spirit of balance, Wilson asked that the city find a different way to help struggling “mom-and-pop” landlords that does not involve evicting tenants into homelessness.
“You have expressed a desire to balance the needs of vulnerable landlords with those of vulnerable tenants,” the coalition’s letter read. “We believe the way to do that is not through loopholes to the eviction moratorium, but through programs like EPRAP that compensate landlords for lost income.”
The System Is Already Overwhelmed
If Harrell fails to extend the moratorium, landlords would be free to hand out eviction notices for nonpayment, but some new laws may help keep tenants housed.
2021 was a landmark year for renters in the State Legislature. Washington passed a just cause provision, and it became the first state in the nation to give the right to an attorney to low-income tenants facing eviction.
In King County, the main provider of attorneys for evictions under the state’s new right-to-counsel law is the King County Bar Association's Housing Justice Project (HJP).
“We are pretty overwhelmed already,” said Edmund Witter, managing attorney of the King County Bar Association's HJP. “We're really at capacity already, and it hasn't even gotten up to what it should be, or what we expect it to be.”
Just last weekend, Witter said his office received 130 calls from people who had the beginnings of an eviction case. To prevent a tidal wave of eviction cases from overwhelming the limited counsel resources, the Legislature established dispute resolution centers to handle eviction outside of the courtroom. But, since renters do not have a right-to-counsel at dispute resolution centers, Witter said that what he called a “shadow court system” continues the power imbalance the Legislature sought to fix with the legislation: Renters probably can’t afford an attorney, but a landlord probably can, so landlords would win out more often.
Witter said he’s not worried about the overwhelming case volume – he’s worried about the people who don’t make contact with the HJP and end up evicted when the moratorium ends. Just under half of tenants don’t show up to their hearing, he said. If a renter does not go to court, then they cannot use the city council’s slew of eviction defenses to their advantage.
The Need to Raise Awareness Among People Facing Eviction
In addition to the state law, the council established a defense against rent-related evictions for six months after the end of the moratorium, another defense against evictions during the school year for families and educators, another defense against evictions for tenants who declare “financial hardship” from the pandemic, and, even before the pandemic, the council set a moratorium on evictions from Dec. 1 to March 1. For all of these tenant protections, the renter must go to court and claim a protection applies to them.
“It's good to have these protections, but they create this barrier where the only people who are gonna use them are the ones who have the know-how and proactive ability to do that,” Witter said.
The Housing Justice Project only helps active eviction cases, but Witter said the best bet for upstream services is the city and county’s rental assistance lottery for households with incomes at or below 50% AMI.
According to a spokesperson from the city’s Office of Housing, Seattle once had two other rental assistance programs supported by federal COVID relief funds; one to serve tenants and landlords of rent- and income-restricted affordable housing, and another led by and serving Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities. Both programs are currently closed.