Nearly a year after Gov. Jay Inslee stopped evictions for failure to pay during the pandemic, lawmakers now find themselves attempting to unwind an experiment of their own making.
Both Republicans and Democrats are looking for a way to end the eviction moratorium while staving off what some predict could be a "tsunami" of evictions once it is lifted.
They are split on how to do so. Some lawmakers have proposed a suite of bills that could immediately ease the growing financial burdens of renters. Others lawmakers seek to permanently reshape the balance of power between tenants and landlords.
In a remote legislative session with a cascade of funding needs, lawmakers may struggle to pass dramatic reforms. But funding bills like those raising money for rent assistance could stay in play through the end of the session.
Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, who has sponsored tenants' rights bills in the past, said competing Republican and Democratic proposals for rent assistance show that legislators across the state see a need.
"I'm hearing universally from members that they're concerned about housing stability for their constituents," Macri said. "I feel like we're going to be able to pass something."
But the sweeping changes to rental regulations aren't popular with landlords who say the eviction moratorium has left them unable to pay their bills.
Landlord Erika Nava Sanchez said at a Jan. 26 hearing that her family-owned company has already had to hire an attorney and change its lease forms to address recent years' changes. New regulations would make it harder to stay in business, she said.
"We can't afford to keep doing this," Sanchez said.
Lawmakers should focus on quickly shoring up tenants and landlords who are behind because of the pandemic, not on permanent changes to the eviction process, said Kyle Woodring, who represents the Rental Housing Association.
Yet advocates warn that returning to the old way of doing things in the aftermath of a pandemic could usher in a wave of homelessness and instability for years to come. The bills are also a chance to address long-standing racial inequities in evictions, said Michele Thomas of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
"This is an opportunity to say we're not just going to get back to the status quo; we have to get to something better," Thomas said.
Lifting the moratorium
The moratorium has potentially kept tens of thousands of people behind on rent in their homes. More than 14% of renters surveyed in Washington — 224,007 households — say they are not caught up on rent payments, according to a January survey from the Census Bureau.
Now lawmakers are tasked with creating an "offramp" from the moratorium by March 31, when it's set to expire.
Democrats in the Legislature are proposing $325 million from the state's general fund to cover back rent, mortgage and utility payments and legal aid. They also say the state should have a dedicated rental assistance fund moving forward, paid for by a $100 fee on certain real estate documents that could raise up to $140 million a year, according to estimates from the state Department of Commerce.
Another proposal sponsored by Rep. Andrew Barkis, a Republican from Olympia who works in property management, says the state should suspend the moratorium and tap its rainy-day fund, setting aside $600 million for rental assistance grants paid to landlords and tenants.
The bill, which has the support of five Democratic co-sponsors, would also, among other tenant protections, expand a six-county pilot program statewide that mitigates conflicts between landlords and tenants before the issue goes to court.
The goal, said Barkis, is to end the moratorium and find a path "back to normality."
"Moratoriums by their very nature are intended for a short period of time," Barkis said. Some of the provisions of the extended eviction moratorium, in Barkis' view, had overreached.
Democrats say the reasons so many are close to losing their housing predated the pandemic and will outlast it.
Bills like the one sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, offer bigger interventions. That bill would make sure landlords can be paid directly from any state rental assistance program and features a number of additional tenant protections, including a ban on landlords arbitrarily ending month-to-month rental agreements, or declining to renew other leases, for two years after any public health emergency.
Kuderer's bill would also mandate a "right to counsel" paid for with public funds for poor tenants brought into eviction proceedings, which would make Washington the first state in the country to do so.
A handful of cities, including New York and San Francisco, have already passed laws guaranteeing some tenants the right to a lawyer during evictions.
The Seattle City Council could soon pursue similar legislation, sponsored by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Andrew Lewis. Sawant is also eyeing ways to extend Seattle's eviction moratorium but has not yet introduced legislation.
"The ultimate goal is we set in place a structure that will stand up whenever we face this again," Kuderer said.
Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, wants to prevent rent hikes for the first six months after the moratorium expires, and cap rent increases to 3% above the last year's consumer price index for six months after that.
"I think we need to give renters a little bit of time to breathe, to figure out next steps without worrying about whether they're going to be priced out of where they live permanently or get evicted," Das said.
Advocates and some legislators say that the pandemic has created a chance to fix evictions' extreme and disparate impact on people of color.
A University of Washington review of eviction data across the state found that in King County, one in 11 Black adults were named in an eviction filing between 2013 and 2017. In Pierce County, the rate was one in six.
"If you want to go back to business as usual, you're talking about extremely excessive eviction rates among Black and brown households, increases in homelessness and declines in affordable housing," said Tim Thomas, lead author of the study and now research director at the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
Macri, the Seattle Democrat, and other lawmakers are also supporting legislation known as "just cause" protections to narrow landlords' ability to end certain leases.
Under the bill, landlords would be required to cite one of 11 reasons, like a tenant's failure to pay or violation of the lease agreement. Without protections and longer notice, "Here's what happens: Either you're displacing tenants or you're adding to the homeless population," said Violet Lavatai, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State. "This is racial inequality at its highest."
In public testimony, landlords told lawmakers the regulations would slow the process of removing problem tenants and add new regulatory burdens.
"When untoward behavior occurs, the housing provider's job is to save the other residents from the problem tenant," said Saint Newton, a landlord and commercial real estate broker.
Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, said he supports measures to help renters, but the scale of the short-term response still is "absolutely not" enough to meet the need. People contact his office "pretty much every day" for help with rent or unemployment.
"In communities where there are less resources, less capital, we're feeling it even more," Johnson said.
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