Landlords across the state, including some in Lewis County, are joining together with the Washington Business Properties Association (WBPA) to file a lawsuit to seek financial relief from the lost income due to Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium.
In response to the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee placed a moratorium on evictions on March 18, which has since been extended four times. The current moratorium is set to expire at the end of the year, but local landlords Dan and Susan Horwath say they would not be surprised if it was extended again.
“The problem is that we are being asked to provide a service for free, but we are still expected to pay the taxes on the properties and pay for the upkeep,” Dan Horwath said.
The Horwaths rent out 12 units in seven different buildings in Centralia, Napavine and Chehalis and as a retired couple, it is their only source of income.
Susan Horwath said that the profit margins are between three and six percent — making it difficult for them to stay ahead when tenants do not pay their rent.
The Horwaths said that they have one tenant that has not paid rent or utilities since March and now owes $14,000. Unpaid utility bills with the city could mean a lien is put on the Horwath’s property.
“Ultimately if she were to leave and not catch up on her utilities, we would be liable for those, or we can’t re-rent. They’ll just turn our electricity off,” Dan Horwath said. “We don’t see any end to this. It just keeps being put off and put off and added to — we’re going into a year and there’s no relief for us.”
Dan Horwath said that they have no problem working with people who may have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are happy to work with tenants on repayment plans, but says the tenant they are having trouble with is ignoring all forms of contact and using the moratorium as a “legal cover” to not pay rent.
“We think she stopped paying out of choice… she bought a new car — that’s one reason why we think she must have the money. When we drive by the place, there’s a new Dodge Challenger in the driveway,” Dan Horwath said.
The Horwaths said that they are not having any problems with their other renters.
“We really think this (moratorium) is going to end up hurting the tenants more than the landlords. When she leaves all of the money she owes will follow her,” Dan Horwath said.
The Horwaths hope the lawsuit will push the state to come up with solutions for everyone involved.
If solutions are not found, when the moratorium ends Lewis County will likely see an influx in individuals and families experiencing homeless and local organizations are preparing as best they can.
“When the moratorium ends there will be persons new to homelessness in our community. It is somewhat of a perfect storm with COVID impacts to wages, the moratorium ending, property prices rising, and the lack of rental housing overall income points,” said Meja Handlen, Housing Program Coordinator with Lewis County Public Health and Social Services. “That being said we are working to create relationships with landlords and community service programs to relieve any potential uptick in evictions when the moratorium ends. The stress felt by renters and landlords as to what will happen next is not lost on us.”
Handlen said that LCPHSS has been contacted by landlords who have been struggling with nonpayment from tenants and are unable to pay the mortgages on their buildings.
“These have predominantly been landlords with one or two rentals and are seeking assistance to not lose their properties. Some are retirees whose only income is the few hundred dollars they net off a rental,” Handlen said.
LCPHSS has taken action in preparation for the lifting of the eviction ban by working to educate the community on how it is more cost-effective to keep individuals housed rather than working to rehouse those who become homeless.
The Housing Resource Center, Gather Church and Lewis County Public Health are readying themselves for the lifting of the eviction ban but are unable to predict the scope of the problem and have not received any additional funding to provide additional services.
Ruth Gutierrez, director of the Housing Resource Center, said that she hopes the state will distribute more CARES Act funding for rent assistance.
“The shelters are currently full. Everybody has to be 6 feet apart in our shelters,” she said. “When you have the barrier of the housing availability being so low, it makes it really difficult to get people rehoused.”
Pastor Cole Meckle with Gather Church works with individuals struggling to make ends meet. He said that it’s difficult to predict how many people will be facing homelessness when the moratorium on evictions is lifted. However, he has been contacted by a number of families that know their landlord is ready to file eviction paperwork.
“I have a lot of concerns particularly for impoverished families who had been making rent payments month to month with jobs that haven’t been maintained and even with unemployment, are far behind,” Meckle said.
One of the problems, Meckle said, is the gap in resources and the timing of the moratorium being lifted. He hopes that there will be more CARES Act funding or other assistance made available to local organizations to be able to help those being evicted.
“I get landlords don’t want to be out rent and there’s a lack of trust in the system that some other assistance is going to come for them, so they feel that they need to take matters into their own hands,” Meckle said. “But to state the obvious, it leaves that family without a place to go and a community having to find housing in a housing market with a one percent vacancy rate.”
Individuals in the community concerned with eviction can contact the Housing Resource Center at 360-736-5140 to begin the process of finding housing.