Civil Right to Counsel Bill Passes Senate in Preparation for End of Eviction Moratorium

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With more than 134,000 Washington households behind on rent and Gov. Jay Inslee's statewide eviction moratorium set to expire March 31, state legislators are racing to pass laws aimed at preventing a looming eviction crisis.

Senate Bill 5160, which passed by a vote of 29-20 on Thursday, aims to provide an off-ramp to the moratorium by defining what repayment plans should look like, expanding an existing landlord-tenant mediation program, and conditioning state rental assistance on landlords' agreement not to pursue eviction.

The state legislature last month appropriated $325 million in federal relief money to the Department of Commerce for rental assistance, as well as $43.5 million in state disaster relief funds.

The bill also would make a historic and permanent change to housing courts by making Washington the first state in the country to guarantee a right to legal representation for indigent tenants in eviction proceedings. Currently, only about 8% of tenants facing eviction have access to a lawyer.

"The ultimate goals of these policies are to keep tenants housed and to help landlords pay their bills," said Sen. Patty Kuderer D-Bellevue, the bill's prime sponsor who chairs the Senate Housing and Local Government Committee, on the Senate floor Thursday.

However, changes to the bill from the Ways and Means Committee removed other significant protections that would have shielded renters from eviction, notably a two-year freeze on 20-day notices, in which a landlord can terminate a month-to-month tenant's lease at any time without giving a reason.

Kuderer objected to the removal of that section, as well as a change that would have raised eviction filing fees from $40 to $200 (in line with other civil litigation), and another that would have repealed a ban on judges' ability to use discretion in cases where tenants have received three or more vacate notices.

There's still a possibility to prevent 20-day notices: a separate "just cause" bill in the House of Representatives sponsored by Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, would permanently end 20-day no-cause terminations.

Kuderer's bill specifies that repayment plans may not exceed one-third of the total amount owed, and may not include late fees or other surcharges, though the requirement excludes tenants owing more than six months' rent from being entitled to a repayment plan.

One lost tenant protection would have automatically sealed eviction records unless courts find in favor of the landlord, a change that was meant to prevent tenants who ultimately prevail in court from being discriminated against and denied housing in the future based on their record. Another made it harder to qualify as indigent, removing a clause that would have allowed a broad interpretation and limiting it to tenants making under 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

An amendment submitted by Kuderer would make new funding available to landlords by authorizing those who have lost rental income to access up to $5,000 through the already-existing Landlord Mitigation Program. An amendment by Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, that proposed increasing the payout to $20,000 was voted down.

The bill passed largely along party lines, although Sen. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup, voted yes.

Several amendments were adopted, including one from Gildon that exempts hotels and short-term rentals from the changes, and one from Kuderer that prevents landlords who access payments through the Department of Commerce's Landlord Mitigation Program from taking legal action against tenants if the payment is not enough to cover the full rental shortfall.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, and other Senate Republicans proposed several amendments to increase payouts to landlords and add screening conditions for indigent tenants that did not pass.

"We have a fundamental disagreement on some of these issues," said Fortunato, who voted against the bill.

One failed amendment proposed by Fortunato would have directed the Attorney General to investigate whether tenants who receive rent assistance actually needed it. Fortunato cited an anecdote of a landlord who said a tenant chose not to pay and then bought a $500,000 house.

"We are not talking about people that are honestly in distress, we are talking about people willing to do nefarious things in order to scam the system," Fortunato said, though he added he wasn't sure if situations like this had actually happened.

"But if it did happen, and the Attorney General were to find out about it, he should have a recourse," Fortunato said.

Kuderer called such a situation hard to believe, especially because rental assistance programs already include income verification and are paid directly to landlords.

"I don't see that that is even a possibility," Kuderer said.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.

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