Michael Wagar Commentary: Inslee’s Renters’ Eviction Ban Extension Is Unfair to Landlords

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I was at a social function this past week and struck up a conversation with an old acquaintance. She owns several rentals in the Twin Cities, a home and a getaway home on the ocean.

She is having a hard time paying her bills and mortgages as most of her tenants are not paying rent and haven’t for months, thanks to a state moratorium on rental evictions.

She thought it unfair that she and her husband have worked hard at their normal jobs for decades, and saved and scrimped and bought properties they could rent, only to have the state come in and protect her renters from paying. Now she wonders if she will lose all her hard earned equity. She said she might have to give up the vacation home she's worked so hard for. She said she needs relief now.

On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee squashed her hopes of being able to collect rent, when he extended an emergency ban on evictions. The ban on evictions — now at 16 months — was supposed to end at the end of this month. Instead, it is being extended three months through Sept. 30.

That’s good news for the estimated 195,000 renters in the state behind on their payments. According to an article in The Seattle Times, state officials estimate unpaid rent in the state rings up at about $110 million a month. With the rent moratorium beginning in March of 2020, the state estimates a total rent debt of about $1.1 billion in the state.

According to a press release by the governor, rent payments need to start again on Aug. 1, but only after landlords offer a repayment plan and rental assistance and eviction resolution programs are up and running on a county by county basis.

I advise landlords to not hold their breath for those programs to become viable.

So far, the state has provided assistance to about 80,000 renters. The state has already spent $500,000 on rent payments, with $658 million in federal dollars available on July 1. That equals to about $1.16 billion, more than enough to cover the past due rent to landlords.

I’m sure the first $500,000 is gone. Gawd knows what will happen to the $658 million in federal dollars.

For those not worried about a landlord getting paid, I get it. Losing a vacation home is not as traumatic as getting evicted. I don’t support mass evictions and throwing thousands onto the streets. But to use the pandemic to stop payments to landlords is just not fair.

Why does the state give the money to the renters, and not the landlords, if it truly is to cover rent? Why not direct payments to landlords through Sept. 30?

The state has the money. Sales tax revenue is soaring in the state, with an estimated additional $838 million flowing into the state’s coffers for the current two-year budget. Then, for the 2021-23 budget cycle, the state estimates an additional $1.8 billion in an unexpected tax windfall. In addition, there are plenty of jobs for the taking in our state economy, and job openings are abundant in Lewis County.

In my limited view of the world, if you are going to not allow evictions, and are part of the state apparatus willing to allow people to live without paying rent, you better make sure the landlords are getting paid. Why pay the renters, who then have to pass the money through to the landlord. Again, why not direct payments to landlords on behalf of renters?

Sadly, all too often state directives, programs and procedures fall far short of being fair, equitable and sensible.

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Michael Wagar is a former president, publisher and editor of The Chronicle.