'We Are Not Going to Be Able to Help Everybody': Washington Officials Give Rental Assistance to People Impacted by COVID-19 Pandemic

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The Snohomish County residents that Galina Volchkova sees asking for pandemic rent relief are workers from restaurants, beauty salons and coffee shops.

Sometimes they're people with family members hospitalized or killed by COVID-19, said Volchkova. Lately, small business owners have joined the list.

"They've exhausted all their savings that they had," said Volchkova, the housing director of the Dispute Resolution Center, which is based out of the Volunteers of America Western Washington.

Volchkova's organization is helping distribute Snohomish County's portion of the $120 million in federal virus assistance announced by Gov. Jay Inslee for renters financially hurt by the pandemic and related restrictions on commerce.

The money pairs with Inslee's emergency order temporarily halting most evictions during the pandemic, which has been extended multiple times and is now set to expire Dec. 31.

But with federal relief money running low and Congress stalled on another aid package, lawmakers and housing officials say the coming months could force a potentially staggering reckoning for both renters and landlords.

Roughly 171,000 Washington tenants are behind on their rent, according to recent U.S. census data.

As many as 50,000 King County renter households could be at risk because of the pandemic, according to Mark Ellerbrook, division director for the county's Housing, Homelessness and Community Development Division.

Outbreaks are meanwhile growing worse, with record-breaking case levels being announced in Washington and across the nation. Inslee this month imposed a fresh round of restrictions that included closing gyms and halting indoor dining service.

Now, state lawmakers preparing for the January legislative session are readying housing and rent-relief proposals. Inslee meanwhile is expected to release his proposed statewide budget plan in December.

Since the temporary moratorium does not get rid of debt from past-due rent, lawmakers say the state must do more to head off a cascade of evictions that would also leave landlords without tenants.

"The bottom line is, if they all suddenly become homeless, we absolutely will not have a safe and stable society," said Rep. Cindy Ryu, a Democrat from Shoreline and chair of the House Housing, Community Development & Veterans Committee. "Because the state does not have enough money to help all of them."

The state must figure out how to build an "exit ramp" for renters when the moratorium expires, Ryu said, so they pay at least some of what they owe, "Because landlords need to pay their mortgage, too."

Aiding the most vulnerable

The federal money allocated by Inslee is administered by the state Department of Commerce, which divvied up the funds among Washington's 39 counties.

Among the requirements to be eligible, a household must be impacted by COVID-19, such as the loss of a job, and must be behind on rent since the beginning of March. Relief was originally limited to households earning at or below 50% of median area income, but officials have increased that to 80%, according to a Department of Commerce spokesperson.

More than 21,000 King County households so far have asked for relief through the program, according to the county's online data dashboard.

With limited funds, King County has focused on getting aid to the most vulnerable communities, said Ellerbrook. That could include places where the virus is most prevalent, or in communities of color, or where people don't speak English as a first language.

"Huge number of households who are at risk," said Ellerbrook, adding later: "We are not going to be able to help everybody who was impacted."

In Snohomish County, Volchkova's organization usually handles about 1,700 cases per year that need mediation between landlord and tenants, she said. A normal year might see 350 cases focusing on financial assistance.

But since March, the organization's caseload has increased to more than 5,400, she said, and "most of the cases were simply because people just lost jobs."

The problem isn't limited to King and Snohomish counties.

In an October survey by the state Department of Commerce, many counties estimated they would use all their federal rental-assistance dollars before year-end.

Kitsap, Pacific, Chelan, Douglas, Benton and Franklin counties all estimated they would run out of funding by Nov. 30, according to the survey. Thurston County estimated its funds would run dry by Nov. 25.

The survey also asked how much more of their current level of funding could counties spend by the last day of the year if they were given additional money. Cowlitz County said it could use 100% more in additional funds, while Kitsap County estimated it could spend 50% more. Snohomish County said 40% more and Thurston County said 25% more.

King County — by far the biggest funding recipient with $28.7 million — estimated it could spend an additional one-third.

Boosting affordable housing

State House Democratic legislators plan to offer a pandemic-related relief package early in the session to include some rental assistance, according to Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle.

Macri said she supports Inslee again extending his eviction moratorium and she supports legislation to keep in place part of it in law. That could include a state statute preventing evictions for tenants who incurred rental debt during the pandemic, she said.

But Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said he opposes such a move. Housing providers already must contend with tighter state restrictions passed in recent years by the Legislature, said Barkis, who works in property management.

Now, during the pandemic, "We're trying to deal with people who are able to pay but they're not paying," he said.

Barkis said the state should instead do more to ease the long-term housing shortage by making it easier and less expensive for developers to get new housing units permitted and built.

Ryu said she wants to expand dispute resolution centers to make sure there's one in every county. Those centers — the type of organization that Volchkova works for — work as a neutral mediator between renters and landlords.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said the state should create a dedicated source of revenue for the Housing Trust Fund, which provides for the building and maintenance of affordable housing units. Kuderer said she also wants to explore public-private partnerships with companies in the region to figure out how to increase affordable housing.

The state must provide more short-term rent relief, she added, "But we also do need federal help if we're going to fully compensate landlords for the amount of rent that's due."

"We just don't have the money for that," Kuderer said.

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