Governor Jay Inslee wears a mask at July 23rd press briefing. (Screen capture via TVW)
Governor Jay Inslee at July 23rd press briefing. (Screen capture via TVW)

At a Thursday press conference on the state’s Covid response, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced he was extending the eviction moratorium and presumably the rent freeze through October 15th. He also promised that at least $100 million in rent assistance was on the way via the federal CARES Act, although the details of how that money will be distributed are still being hashed out.

This marked the third time the governor has extended the eviction moratorium, which he announced in mid-March and first extended on April 16th–also adding a rent freeze at that time. So far, that moratorium and rent freeze haven’t met much resistance, but the landlord lobby is preparing a legal challenge, according to recent reports.

Regardless, tenant advocates have pointed out the eviction moratorium will only delay the suffering unless the government provides rent assistance to cover all the back rent that renters who’ve lost income or experienced unexpected health expenses have been piling up. The CARES Act provided a downpayment on that effort with the $100 million it sent to Washington state for rent relief.

The Census Bureau’s Housing Pulse Survey showed “12% of Washington renters—nearly 250,000 households—reported they were unable to make rent in June,” Crosscut‘s David Kroman reported. “But for Black renters, that number was an astounding 42%, compared with 8% of white renters. 24% of Hispanic/Latino renters and 8% of Asian renters were unable to make rent.”

The $100 million set aside for rent assistance sounds somewhat impressive, but distributed to 250,000 households, it would only mean $400 per household–far less than the average monthly rent. The Governor admitted it was probably not enough, and pointed to Congress to provide more money–in contrast to calling a special session to allocate money at the state level.

The stubbornly persistent spread of the coronavirus means that the much of the economy remains on lockdown or strict limitations. Secretary of Health John Wiesman expanded face covering requirements, adding common areas like elevators and hallways to the existing requirements. Mask are now required in shared spaces in apartment buildings, university housing, and hotels, as well as congregate settings such as nursing homes.

“We’re losing the momentum we had during the early months of this response,” Wiesman said. “Looking ahead to the fall and hopes of schools reopening, we must dig back in to regain control. Fewer, shorter, and safer interactions are crucial. Staying home is still safest but if you go out, keep it quick, keep your distance from others, and wear your face covering.”

The governor tightened rules for restaurants, bars, and venues. He capped weddings and funerals at 30 attendees or 20% indoor occupancy, whichever is less, and prohibited indoor seating altogether at bars starting July 30th. Phase 3 restaurant rules were also tightened up to 50% (rather than 75%) occupancy and tables will be capped at five occupants, with only people who live together allowed to be seated together indoors.

Nationwide, we just crossed four million confirmed cases. Unemployment remains very high. That economic malaise means tenants remain behind on rent. The $100 million due to be distributed by the end of year could bail out a lot of struggling tenants, but further assistance will be needed in 2021, if not sooner. And the devil will be the details, which we don’t have yet, though the governor assured reporters his office was working with tenants and landlords to devise a system to dispatch the money.

“The extension also directs Governor’s Office staff to convene an informal work group of landlords and tenants to discuss potential changes to the order in the short-term and long-term as the pandemic progresses, including the prospect of rent increases,” the governor’s press release said. Rent increases are currently banned under most circumstances in Washington state, although it sounds like this informal workgroup may weigh the possibility of easing that restriction. The governor’s office also promised details in coming days on the eviction moratorium they may shed light on the rent freeze that I presume has also been extended to October 15th. Without the extension, the rent freeze would have ended August 1st.

The other big topic of the press conference was the encroachment of federal law enforcement agents on Seattle, after the dramatic federal crackdown on Portland protests that included tear gassing Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler with no apparent provocation. Governor Inslee said Vice President Mike Pence and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials gave him assurances that they were not deploying agents in Seattle.

However, by Thursday night, those assurances seemed to be false as federal agents were seen arriving in Seattle. DHS has refused to reveal where those agents are located, and claimed they are there on standby to protect federal buildings and property as needed.

Mayor Jenny Durkan, who like Inslee was given assurances from federal authorities, said she was readying legal action–potentially in conjunction with Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson–against the federal government, but she warned that she had little authority to intercede against federal agents on the ground.

So instead of more federal help on rent relief that the state has asked for, it looks like we’re getting federal riot police that authorities didn’t asked for instead. Few appear happy with this turn of events outside of Seattle Police Officers Guild president Mike Solan.

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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.