A degenerative illness diagnosis in September 2003 impacted Sarah Stewart’s housing stability as much as it did her health. Over the past 15 years, her work schedule has varied depending on how she’s feeling; she takes on part-time jobs that give her the flexibility to rest when she’s too fatigued to work. But the intermittent nature of her employment also impacted her rental payment amounts at Green Lakes Plaza, a low-income apartment operated by the affordable-housing provider Seattle Housing Authority (SHA).
Because her rent was based on the projected annual income of her fluctuating work schedule, Stewart said that her rent ranged from $364 to $550 during the nearly two years that she lived in her Green Lake apartment. As a result, her rent was often more than she could afford. “I ended up having to work more, which was making my health tank, because they were projecting, and it was this vicious cycle,” Stewart told Seattle Weekly in a May interview. Her rent was “particularly high” in 2017, Stewart said, causing her to default on payments. She received a 14-day notice for nonpayment of rent on October 13, 2017, according to a King County Superior Court record. A legally binding agreement with the city’s housing authority allowed her to stay in her apartment, while donations from charities and family helped stretch her tenancy for a few more months.
But the additional help still wasn’t enough. Stewart was ultimately evicted from her apartment five months later, and has since slept in her car or on friend’s couches, she said at a Sept. 20 press conference held at City Hall.
Stewart’s experience echoes that of nearly 1,500 Seattle residents who faced eviction proceedings in 2017, 86.5 percent of whom were for nonpayment of rent, according to a new report released by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project of the King County Bar Association. The report entitled Losing Home: The Human Cost of Evictions in Seattle, investigated the causes and results of 2017 Seattle evictions by analyzing records from King County Superior Court, the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, and the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections. Surveys and interviews with tenants who had entered eviction proceedings also revealed that the majority of such residents said that unemployment or a medical emergency had caused them to fall behind on rent.
King County court records gathered for the report showed that the racial disparities among eviction filings reflected that of national trends: More than half of evicted residents are people of color, while they comprise 30.8 percent of the population, the study found. People of color were also more likely to be evicted for smaller amounts of unpaid rent than those of white residents.
More than 70 percent of the evictions also occurred in ZIP codes with a majority-white population.“The relationship between eviction filings and gentrifying ZIP codes suggests the eviction process is a form of displacement of lower-income households and communities of color, playing a function in gentrification,” the report’s authors’ wrote. “Because of the high rent in Seattle and limited supply of affordable housing, it is likely that many tenants evicted from gentrifying neighborhoods left Seattle or became homeless.” Once they’re evicted, residents often have limited access to legal resources, and could be precluded from rental-assistance programs such as Section 8.
The survey also revealed that Stewart is not alone in experiencing homelessness after she was expelled from her apartment. Nearly 90 percent of the report’s interviewees experienced homelessness after being evicted, which can be a life-or-death matter. According to King County Examiner’s Office data, 169 people experiencing homelessness died in 2017. The Losing Home report revealed that six tenants died during or soon after being evicted, four of whom died by suicide.
The report included policy recommendations that ranged from additional financial and social services provided at court to limiting attorney and non-rent fees. “The problem is not tenants not wanting to pay their rent, it’s tenants having bad luck and not being able to recuperate … or to be able to solve that problem and they’re losing everything,” Housing Justice Project Managing Attorney Edmund Witter said at the Sept. 20 press conference. “Currently, King County does not devote much of anything to actually preventing eviction; instead we don’t help people until they’ve already lost their housing.”
That was the case for Stewart, who said that she never saw a commissioner face-to-face because she signed a legally binding stipulation with the city’s housing authority to remain in her apartment after she was served an eviction notice last year. In the stipulation, she agreed to pay $1,129 in her outstanding balance, which included $300 for court fees, all of which she had to pay in addition to her monthly rent. The agreement also required her to secure a case manager from whom she had to receive written permission prior to raising additional complaints about SHA. “The purpose of this section is not to limit defendant’s right to a remedy, but to address the overburdensome conduct defendant has engaged in causing multiple departments at SHA to address Operations issues,” the SHA legal team wrote in the stipulation and order signed by the court commissioner on Jan. 9.
Charities donated money for her to pay the back fees, and Stewart’s mother also dipped into her retirement fund to help. “I still was somehow never able to catch up,” Stewart told Seattle Weekly. She was ultimately late on rent in February and March, according to court documents. An SHA property manager also found her in violation of the stipulation for not securing a case manager, although Stewart told Seattle Weekly that she had difficulty finding one.
The sheriff’s office evicted her on March 20 as a result. After leaving her apartment in a rush, Stewart started a GoFundMe to raise money for an RV that would allow her to move out of her car. According to a court document, she is also responsible for paying more than $3,000 in outstanding rental payments and sheriff’s and attorney’s fees.
Although Stewart didn’t see a commissioner during her eviction proceeding, she said that Washington judicial officials’ could practice greater discretion to keep residents in their apartments. The judge or commissioners’ interpretation of the unlawful detainer statute leads to evictions when the official doesn’t take residents’ individual circumstances into consideration, Witter noted at the Sept. 20 press conference. “I will often see judges who feel that they have no choice but to evict the tenant even if they’re a dollar behind, even if the tenant has a significant disability, and has had a flawless tenancy for 20 years,” Witter said. “This is not a working system, and it’s not the system that a lot of cities and states have.”
In a May 23 report about the housing court system, Seattle Weekly interviewed a retired commissioner who said that state statute did not allow him to exercise much discretion during eviction proceedings. “I have no right under the law to make the landlord absorb that failure to pay. The statute doesn’t allow the court to say to the landlord, ‘Gee, this person has limited means and difficult circumstances. We’re going to make you loan him … the value of the rental,’ ” former commissioner Carlos Velategui said. Yet Witter noted that judges in New York and Ohio prioritize keeping residents housed by seeking other remedies that ensures landlords are paid without tenants becoming homeless.
The reports’ authors hope that the state legislature, the City Council, and the court system will adopt the policy recommendations, Seattle Women’s Commissioner Xochitl Maykovich said at the press conference’s conclusion.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a commissioner wrote the Jan. 9 stipulation and order. The article has been amended to reflect the correct author of the agreement.