Other Views: Keep Washington’s Mom-and-Pop Landlords in Business


State leaders are right to prevent pandemic-related residential evictions. Droves of Washingtonians shouldn’t be turned out into the street when eviction moratoriums eventually expire.

But landlords aren’t the big bad wolf in every story. Often, they’re small business owners struggling to pay their own bills. These days, many are wondering if the investment is worth the risk.

“I would say over half my members are asking, ‘Should I sell,’ ” said Kyle Woodring, government affairs director for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, a Seattle-based association for independent rental owners and managers.

Washington’s policymakers should encourage these entrepreneurs instead of driving them away.

Gov. Jay Inslee missed an opportunity to fine-tune the state eviction moratorium to help struggling renters without unnecessarily burdening small landlords. He had plenty of models to choose from: Minnesota’s moratorium allows landlords to evict problem tenants who endanger others or cause significant property damage. New York’s protects small property owners from tax lien sales and foreclosure. California requires renters to swear under penalty of perjury they’re suffering COVID-19-related financial hardship and pay 25% of their rent.

But Washington’s moratorium prohibits evictions for any reason other than imminent threat to health and safety, active criminal activity, or if the landlord intends to sell or live in the property. This blanket prohibition not only protects thousands of renters in crisis, but every renter who isn’t — at property owners’ expense.

Of the nearly 212,000 Washington households who told Census surveyors they owed a month or more in back rent during the first half of March, 26,528 respondents, about 12%, said they hadn’t experienced unemployment or loss of income. More than 10,000 households with rent delinquencies reported annual household earnings of $100,000 or more. Even if lawmakers earmark enough money to cover rents that have gone unpaid during the pandemic, higher-income households may not qualify for rent assistance. Landlords will be left holding the bag.

Large companies can spread losses and legal expenses over huge portfolios, but many mom-and-pop landlords don’t have that luxury. Without help, they’ll be forced to sell or otherwise take rentals off the market, exacerbating Washington’s housing shortage.

Members of the House Committee on Housing, Human Services & Veterans edged in the right direction Thursday, amending Senate Bill 5160 before passing it out of committee. The bill would limit the terms of repayment plans for back rent and give tenants the right to counsel in eviction proceedings. Initially, it would have allowed landlords to receive only up to $5,000 for the past year’s unpaid rents. An amendment increased that to $15,000 in rental debt accrued by low-income tenants during and immediately after the emergency, which will help landlords cover costs.

Lawmakers should continue to refine one-size-fits-all proposals to protect these small businesses in this time of need.