Washington State Lawmakers Advance Eviction Protections as End of Moratorium Approaches

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State lawmakers on Thursday advanced a proposal requiring payment plans and other protections for tenants who have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic. The legislation, which must still clear the state House of Representatives, comes as the state braces for the end of the eviction moratorium that has stretched on for nearly a year.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, passed the state Senate Thursday on a 29-20 vote, largely along party lines.

Kuderer said Thursday her bill is designed "to keep tenants housed and to help landlords pay their bills," warning that if the state doesn't act, "evictions will skyrocket. The homelessness problem we have in our state will get much worse."

Republicans opposing the bill countered that additional regulations could push landlords into foreclosure or encourage them to sell to larger property owners.

"These people are hanging on by their fingernails," said Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, of landlords who have not received rent from tenants.

Lawmakers this year are considering ways to craft an "offramp" from the eviction moratorium, currently set to end March 31. While legislators from both parties have said the state should fund rental assistance to help repay landlords whose tenants are behind, some Democrats argue the state should embrace more sweeping changes to the eviction process.

In Washington state, nearly 135,000 people, or about 10% of renters, were estimated to have fallen behind on their rent as of mid-February, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey.

Lawmakers last month approved a plan to distribute $2.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money to various state needs, including $365 million for renters and homeowners, primarily for emergency rent and utility assistance.

Kuderer's proposal would require landlords to attempt to resolve unpaid rent through a resolution program before filing to evict the tenant in court, with that provision expiring in 2023.

For rent debt accumulated during the pandemic, the state would require payment plans be offered on a "reasonable schedule" with payments not more than one-third of monthly rent.

If a tenant doesn't accept a payment plan within two weeks or fails to pay during the plan, the landlord could apply for state funding of up to $5,000 per tenant or attempt to evict.

In court, tenants with low incomes would be entitled to an attorney, a provision known as "right to counsel." The state would have a year to set up that program. (A Seattle City Council committee Thursday passed a similar right-to-counsel proposal with no income limit.)

An earlier and broader version of the bill, later modified in a Senate committee, would have prevented certain evictions for two years and extended renter protections to future public health emergencies. A competing proposal sponsored by Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, has not passed out of committee.

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