The mayor wants this, Sawant wants that. Its not very One Seattle tbh.
The mayor wants this, Sawant wants that. It's not very One Seattle tbh. RS

Last Friday, Mayor Bruce Harrell gave Seattle a two-week notice before ending a nearly two-year-long moratorium on evictions. But before landlords got too excited, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant brought to today's Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee legislation that would extend the moratorium until the end of the civil emergency.

With just 10 days until landlords can stick renters with eviction notices for nonpayment, the council will have to act quickly if they want to join Sawant and reverse the mayor’s decision. So far, the other council members have shown little appetite. In fact, Council President Debora Juarez initially scheduled the vote on the proposal for the day after the moratorium was scheduled to end. She has since moved the vote to Tuesday, Feb 22. Juarez declined to comment.

This week Sawant’s office sent the quickly drafted legislation to Juarez with the hope that it would be both introduced and voted on by Feb. 22. According to Councilmember Andrew Lewis, it is “highly irregular” for council to vote on legislation the same day it is introduced. But this is a highly irregular case.

The council can vote on Sawant’s legislation the same day it is introduced because it is a resolution, not an ordinance. The word “resolution” usually triggers eyerolls from policy nerds because such legislation does not carry the legal weight of an ordinance. However, this resolution isn’t merely symbolic, because it would change the date in a declaration that does carry legal weight.

The resolution also solves a timeline issue, since it would go into effect immediately without the mayor’s signature, whereas a normal ordinance would take 30 days to go into effect.

Any council member could have proposed a similar resolution any time after Durkan issued her executive order. Sawant and her office thought about doing this once before, but activists and the ongoing spread of the virus pressured Durkan to routinely extend the measure. Moreover, gathering support for a vote to move political heat from the mayor onto the council would have been difficult, especially since no one could have been sure if the mayor would lift the moratorium before the end of civil emergency anyway.

In todays meeting, Sawant invited tenant advocates to plea their case to the council ahead of the legislation
In today's meeting, Sawant invited tenant advocates to plea their case to the council ahead of the legislation

In the Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee meeting, a panel of housing justice advocates asked the council to approve the resolution, as they fear a potentially catastrophic wave of evictions.

“Mayor Harrell knows what the outcome of this decision to end the eviction moratorium will be: Immediate suffering, displacement, and immediate increases in homelessness, likely to a scale that we’ve never seen before,” a panelist from Real Change said.

Last month, census survey data indicated that 124,000 households were behind on rent in the greater Seattle metro area. There’s not much rental assistance money left either. Last Friday, the Mayor directed the Office of Housing to distribute $25 million to renters and landlords, but only $6 million of that funding wasn’t already tied up in contracts. Lauren McGowan, the Associate Vice President at United Way, one of the nonprofits tasked to distribute rental assistance, said that $6 million will go fast. She said 3,000 Seattle residents need assistance, and each requested $11,000 on average. McGowan said that as of Feb 14 United Way would need another $27 million to address the level of need.

The panelists continued, addressing the committee members directly: “Will you be complicit in Mayor Harrell’s decision? Or will you stand with tenants and those on the brink of homelessness and extend the eviction moratorium to the end of the COVID-19 emergency?”

When the council debriefed after the panel, no one indicated clear support for Sawant’s resolution. Councilmember Tammy Morales, who called for the mayor to continue the moratorium beyond Feb. 28 in a tweet, teased her support.

“I think it's important that we have a serious conversation about what the impact ending the moratorium would have on our neighbors and on our small landlords as well,” Morales said.

She added that the city will need time to dole out the remaining rental assistance, so it “only makes sense” to keep people housed until the money is distributed.

The only other council member to comment was Councilmember Sara Nelson. Nelson asked about what other municipalities have experienced after lifting their moratoria. Many of the landlords who own a few rental properties showed up for public comment to insist that tenant advocates were exaggerating the impact of the moratorium’s end.

Councilmember Andrew J. Lewis did not speak up in committee, but in a phone interview he said he’s waiting on the portal and resource website from the Harrell administration to see if there will be an efficient and effective way to get tenants support if the moratorium ends.

Councilmembers will have to take a clear stance next week. Even if the council decides to override the mayor’s decision, Harrell would still have the power to block the resolution by ending the emergency order or the civil emergency. I asked the mayor’s spokesperson if Harrell would do this and I will update if I hear back.

If the mayor did decide to block the council in that way, then they could pursue an ordinance to extend the moratorium. An ordinance would take longer to work out, and all the evictions in the interim would be valid. Plus, it would take a lot of gumption to secure a veto-proof majority on legislation that twice defies a new mayor who just won an election in a landslide.

This post has been updated to reflect the new date of the vote.