As Seattle’s median income has continued to rise in recent years, high-rent burdens have plagued lower-income renters, some of whom are falling behind on rent. A September 2018 report by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project of the King County Bar Association showed that 86.5 percent of the nearly 1,500 Seattle residents who faced eviction proceedings in 2017 had failed to pay their rent. The study, Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle, found that eviction filings disproportionately affect people of color, with women more likely to face eviction for small sums of back rent amounting to $100 or less. And once renters experience eviction, they can be slapped with legal fees, disqualified from rental-assistance programs, and catapulted into homelessness.
A resolution set to be introduced Jan. 21 by the Seattle City Council could set the stage for eviction reform in Seattle, an action that housing advocates hope is the first step toward significant changes. Sponsored by Seattle City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien, the proposed resolution draws on recommendations from Losing Home to highlight the burdens that evictions place on vulnerable populations. Losing Home’s policy recommendations, which advocate for additional financial and social services for tenants who have fallen on hard times, provided the framework for the potential ordinances outlined in the resolution.
“The point of the resolution is to get everyone on the same page as far as what the problems are, so we can use that as a foundation to work together to identify some legislative solutions,” Herbold told Seattle Weekly.
Efforts to address the report’s recommendations began during the 2019–20 budget process late last year, in which councilmembers passed a statement of legislative intent requesting the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to lead research and suggest strategies to improve the conditions of a rental unit when eviction notices are filed due to habitability issues. The SDCI report, due by June 1, 2019, will also identify additional resources or staffing that would be needed to achieve the recommendations.
Funds will also be slashed from the Human Services Department budget in 2019 and 2020, while money will be funneled into SDCI’s budget for contracts with community organizations that provide outreach to low-income tenants and legal services to renters in eviction proceedings, the resolution stated.
In Herbold’s eyes, a provision in the resolution that grants greater judicial discretion in “just cause” hearings could effect the most change. Seattle is the only city in the state that safeguards tenants on month-to-month leases from unjust-cause evictions, thanks to a Just Cause Eviction Ordinance passed in 1980. But tenants throughout Washington are hamstrung in their ability to retain their units once they fall behind on rent, according to the resolution. Residents can stay in their places only when they’re on an unexpired lease, pay the legal fees, and pay back rent within five days of an eviction judgment — a tall order for lower-income residents experiencing financial hardships.
“The item that I think is important to tenants throughout the state, and especially important to Seattle because we already do have just cause, is giving judges the latitude to consider extenuating circumstances in making decisions around eviction for nonpayment of rent,” Herbold said.
A lack of financial and legal resources often leaves low-income renters with little recourse during their show cause hearings. Tenants interviewed for a May 2018 Seattle Weekly investigation said that the judicial officials handling their cases didn’t consider the extenuating circumstances that prevented them from paying rent, such as unemployment.
Recently retired King County Superior Court Commissioner Carlos Velategui told Seattle Weekly in a May 2018 interview that the state statute does not allow judicial officials to grant clemency to tenants who fail to pay their rent, although commissioners grant people additional time to move out of their apartments. “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,’” Velategui said.
The resolution seeks to increase judicial discretion by advocating for the repeal or amendment of a state statute that prevents tenants from being protected by the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance at the end of their lease term. Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle) introduced a bill to outlaw no-cause evictions during the last legislative session, which didn’t pass. However, Macri is planning to re-introduce the bill, as well as propose a series of other measures this legislative session related to affordable housing, some of which will address eviction reform.
A visit to downtown Seattle’s King County Courthouse acquainted Macri with cases of tenants who had fallen on hard times. “Every case I heard was related to somebody having a medical crisis that caused them not to be able to work, which caused them to fall behind in their rent and ultimately lose their apartment,” Macri said. The lack of flexibility for tenants made her think that “there must be a better way we can address this.” She believes that more people would maintain their tenancy if state statute is amended to allow judges to consider contextual information before delivering a judgement.
Another potential measure seeks to extend the notice to pay the back rent or vacate a property from the three days required under current state statute to 21 days. The bill would also clarify the definition of rent so that tenants could only lose possession of their unit for nonpayment of the full rent amount; currently, failure to pay utilities, late or attorney fees could force tenants to vacate their homes. “If people need social services assistance in paying their rent, they can’t even organize that within three days to pay their landlord,” Macri said. “While it wouldn’t change the obligation for tenants to pay their landlords, it would not make the consequence of losing their homes, except for when they didn’t pay their rent.”
The extension of notice timelines has proved beneficial in other parts of the state such as in Grant County, where the public housing authority elected to grant tenants 14 days after the notice was issued to vacate or pay before losing possession of their homes. “When they moved from three days to 14 days, they saw a substantial increase in people paying in full, and they also saw a slight decrease in people actually using social services like rent eviction prevention money,” Macri said. The extra time allowed them to mobilize resources from their disability benefits or social network.
The proposed resolution also lists plans to consider legislative action that will address a series of housing-related issues, including domestic-violence victims being held financially responsible for property damage caused by their perpetrators and the inability to understand the signing of mutual termination-of-tenancy agreements that strip tenants of their rights to remain in their apartment, as shown in an April 2018 Seattle Weekly investigation.
However, not everyone believes that Seattle is going about eviction reform in the right way. The Rental Housing Association of Washington — a resource for rental managers and owners — wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly that the RHWA advocated that the Seattle City Council provide short-term emergency rent assistance to tenants experiencing financial hardships, but that their suggestion was ignored.
The Seattle City Council “has chosen to put zero additional dollars toward short-term rental assistance in 2019, with Councilmember Herbold instead wanting to study its efficacy — in the face of the city’s own Housing Levy Report demonstrating that short-term assistance works and preempts the eviction process all together,” Rental Housing Association of Washington Deputy Director of Government Affairs Heather Pierce wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly. “Landlords are not the cause of eviction. Income inequality, and systemic economic and institutional social barriers, are the drivers of the collective action problem before us. Council can best serve the city by engaging with stakeholders on all sides. Developing the best available data as a basis for policy discussions would create cogent economic outcomes for tenants while preserving Seattle’s indispensable rental housing stock.”
But for Washington Community Action Network Political Director Xochitl Maykovich, the ordinance only scratches the surface of needed eviction reform in Seattle. Many Washington CAN members have themselves experienced eviction, and have shared their stories with city councilmembers. “A resolution is great, but if they don’t actually take that seriously and pass something substantial that will pass the law, then there’s not much to say,” Maykovich said. However, she noted that if the city does pass legislation that addresses the harms of eviction, that would “lay the groundwork for the state” to follow suit.
Maykovich noted that allowing for judicial discretion is necessary to minimize evictions. Last week, Maykovich saw an eviction filing from the King County Superior Court in which a tenant had received a three-day notice to vacate for owing $2 in back rent. Maykovich said the renter didn’t pay within the three days because the notice had been delivered to her neighbor instead.
“Until we get something substantial passed, there’s still going to be more $2 evictions,” Maykovich said. “I think it’s great that councilmembers want to put something forward signaling their intent … I also think that we shouldn’t necessarily be celebrating until we get something substantial.”
Jan. 16, 2019 Update: The story has been amended to include quotes from Rep. Nicole Macri and to change the subhead that incorrectly labeled the resolution an ordinance.