A support of the winter evicition ban testified ahead of the Seattle City Council's vote. (Seattle Channel)
A support of the winter evicition ban testified ahead of the Seattle City Council's vote. (Seattle Channel)

On Monday, the Seattle City Council by a 7-0 vote passed a winter eviction ban aiming to protect tenants during the three coldest months of the year. Although some cities do bar evictions on days with inclement weather, the policy Seattle just passed would be the most far-reaching in the country.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduced the winter eviction ban in December at the request of the Seattle Renters Commission, which cited the need to stem the flow of people into homelessness and reduce health risks–191 homeless people died in 2018, they noted. Sawant proposed a five-month eviction ban from November through March, modeling the policy on what Paris and other French cities have implemented.

The broader ban was whittled down to three months (spanning from December through February) and limited to low- and moderate-income tenants by amendments ahead of the vote. The bill protects tenants who fall behind on rent or violate certain lease terms, although landlords can begin eviction proceedings that could then be enforced in March. The final bill exempts cases where criminal or nuisance activity has been documented or where a tenant’s behavior is proven to make neighbors unsafe. Owner-occupied properties also get a pass.

Councilmember Alex Pedersen proposed an amendment exempting landlords with four or fewer housing units, which also prevailed by a 4-3 vote–with Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Andrew Lewis, and Dan Strauss joining him. Councilmember Sawant opposed the amendment, saying it was “entirely hypothetical” and not based on hard data, while the harm to tenants was very real. She also pointed out it placed a burden on tenants to research their landlords to figure out how many housing units they own, which often isn’t readily apparent and can be concealed via Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) or other legal instruments.

Almost 28,882 registered buildings in Seattle have four or fewer units, according to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections figures. However, Aly Pennucci with Council Central staff said they couldn’t find reliable data of which landlords own multiple buildings and exceed the unit threshold when adding together their other properties. Thus, exactly how many rental units Pedersen’s amendment exempts from the ban is unclear, as is an enforcement mechanism.

Councilmember Lewis successfully added an amendment setting up a framework for a mitigation fund to help tenants catch up on rent and make landlords whole, with the intent to fund it during budget deliberations in the fall.

Councilmembers Lorena González, who is on maternity leave, and Debora Juarez were absent Monday.

The bill now goes to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s desk. The Mayor has strongly opposed the ban and could veto the bill, but six councilmember votes would override her veto. She also could let the bill become law without her signature, or just sign it and move on, seeing the writing on the wall.

The Mayor’s spokesperson Ernesto Apreza issued another statement arguing against the bill before the vote: “City Council and the mayor share the same goal: helping people facing evictions and keeping them in their homes, especially during the winter months. But the mayor has been advised a legal fight is almost certain and could be costly to taxpayers.”

Apreza said “proven” programs already exist, dismissing the need for this broader effort. Councilmember Sawant countered that argument during her comments ahead of the vote.

“I just want to point out how much the Mayor’s office has opposed this legislation, and in addition to the previous letters they have sent and memos they have sent, they just a few minutes before this meeting started sent us another letter opposing this legislation,” Sawant said. “One of the things they’ve attempted to do is to counterpose the winter evictions moratorium against mitigation funding and other renter assistance. I just wanted to clarify that they’re both necessary, and they both work well together. So, it’s good to have this amendment…that creates the framework for mitigation funding, but to make those funds a reality we will have to push for resources in the budget in November.”

A Seattle Times analysis of 2019 King County Sheriff data showed that March was the most popular month for enforcing evictions in King County, followed by January. King County judges ordered 3,329 evictions in 2019, and the Sheriff’s Office had to enforce 1,191 of those evictions.

The Mayor is likely correct that landlords will sue, as they have other renter protections like Seattle’s landmark first-in-time rental application law–which did hold up at the Washington Supreme Court–and which several landlords testifying at the meeting did threaten to do. However, that such a legal defense would be “costly to taxpayers” is subjective and frankly centers wealthy people who have nothing to lose if eviction policy stays the same.

The Mayor could have just as easily framed the first-in-time law as certainly headed to a legal fight “costly to taxpayers” but by fighting the case, the City convinced the Washington Supreme Court to strike down the Washington state precedent setting an incredibly broad definition of property takings beyond the nationwide standard, which barred the way for a number of other renter protections and progressive revenue sources. Living in perpetual fear of being sued is no way to govern or legislate. The legal challenges nearly always come, so shying away from them is a route to accomplish very little.

The winter eviction ban is scheduled to go into effect come December, assuming Mayor Durkan or a legal challenge is not successful at blocking the bill.

Seattle Renters Commission. (City of Seattle)

The winter eviction ban marks another win for the tenant organizers and for the Seattle Renters Commission, which was established in 2017 perhaps as a feel good gesture. However, the commission has been far from a rubberstamp and has been getting heavily involved in pushing legislation. Unfortunately, appointments to the commission–like some other City advisory boards–have slowed to a trickle, leaving the commission with some temporary members or vacancies. Hopefully, the Mayor recognizes the need to keep these vital commissions and advisory boards well resourced to do the valuable work they do.

The Seattle City Council also voted to delay their vote on a preemption resolution–though councilmembers did unanimously sign a letter to state legislators against State preemeption of City business taxes, which is being considered as a condition for the state bill granting King County payroll tax authority. Mayor Durkan hasn’t yet taken a definitive position on preemption–though she did sound open to it.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.