Seattle Council Passes Eviction Defense Package

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Councilmember Tammy Morales and members of the Stay Housed Stay Healthy coalition listen to a speaker at their May 21st rally. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Yesterday, the Seattle City Council passed three bills extending protections for tenants facing the threat of eviction. They also voted unanimously to send a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and Governor Jay Inslee asking them to extend their respective eviction moratoriums, which both expire June 30th, through the end of the year.

Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Tammy Morales, and Andrew Lewis led on crafting the package and voted the three bills out of the Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee. Their fellow committee member Alex Pedersen dissented and voted no after his amendments to water down the legislation were stonewalled. The lack of a unanimous committee recommendation delayed the bills by a week based on Council rules but ultimately proved inconsequential.

Councilmember Debora Juarez joined Pedersen in opposing two of the bills, but voted for the school-year eviction ban. Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Lisa Herbold were absent for the meeting, which were excused absences they motioned for last week during Council Briefing. Council President M. Lorena González and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda backed all three bills, giving the package a majority.

Here is what those three bills do:

  • The eviction defense bill will allow tenants to fight evictions by declaring a financial hardship from the pandemic. Passed 5-2.
  • The school-year eviction ban will prevent the eviction of households with students, educators, or public school support staff during the school year. Passed 6-1.
  • The end of tenancy loophole fix expands Just Cause eviction protections to close a loophole that allows landlords to evict tenants at the end of fixed-term leases simply by not offering an extension. Passed 5-2.

Public comment at the start of the Council meeting was split, with landlords turning out to share some horror stories and predict doom and gloom. Some of the anecdotes implied the package of law did things it didn’t, such as preventing landlords from evicting tenants who have harassed them and threatened violence. And, to be fair, few landlords backed the eviction defense bills, too.

Anecdotes aside, the data shows landlords overwhelmingly using eviction to boot tenants behind on rent and often just a month or less, instead of frequently making the case for an eviction based on nuisance or criminal grounds. The 2018 Losing Home report from the Housing Justice Project is a font of knowledge here as the authors analyzed 1,218 unlawful detainer (eviction) cases filed in 2017: “86.5% of eviction filings were for nonpayment of rent and of these, 52.3% were for one month or less in rent.”

Councilmembers Morales and Sawant warned of a “tsunami” of evictions as the eviction moratorium is lifted, exposing tenants who fell behind on rent during the pandemic. Morales reiterated her warning that this could spell disaster for an already strained homelessness service system: “If even a quarter of renters who currently owe rent debt fall into homelessness, our entire system could collapse.”

Eviction defense

One of Councilmember Juarez criticism’s of the eviction defense bill was that is may not ultimately successfully protect tenants. This expanded on Pedersen’s attacks in committee, which largely centered on the plight of landlords.

“I’m always afraid of raising expectations,” Juarez said. “So what you’re going to have is somebody to come into court, assert the defense of Covid — that’s why you couldn’t pay your rent during the moratorium — that doesn’t mean a judge or a jury is going to buy it.”

There is a kernel of truth here, but it also is misleading about how eviction court has historically worked. Most evictions are processed long before seeing a jury, and many may not even see a judge. The vast majority of evictions happen by default with the tenant declining to show up at their hearing. The ‘no shows’ are sometimes intentional because an uncontested default ruling will buy tenants more time (two weeks) than an accelerated eviction proceeding from the superior court might have. The first time an eviction case is heard is often in front of a commissioner of the court, rather than a judge or jury, and if the landlord’s attorney can sway them, then they may have their eviction order.

Losing Home lays out a timeline of how quickly evictions can occur (21 days!) and how little recourse tenants can have. (Graphic by Housing Justice Project)
Losing Home lays out a timeline of how quickly evictions can occur (21 days!) and how little recourse tenants can have. (Graphic by Housing Justice Project)

This pattern of pumping out evictions without much of a fair trial may change: the right-to-counsel legislation passed earlier this year is intended to encourage more tenants to go to court to assert their rights. The bills today give them more tools to win and may dissuade landlords from filing so many evictions in the first place. That means more tenants will win before even having to face a trial — a system to which landlords had grown accustomed from the opposite angle.

Tenants contested only 350 of 1218 eviction cases in 2017. (Graphic by Housing Justice Project)
Tenants contested only 350 of 1218 eviction cases in 2017. (Graphic by Housing Justice Project)

In the 2017 data, only 26% of tenants in eviction proceedings had legal counsel. Seattle’s new right-to-counsel law intends to fix that, but the system is going to taxed coming out of the eviction moratorium with many landlord itching to evict tenants behind on rent.

Another criticism from Juarez was that Seattle’s approach to tenant rights was too piecemeal, suggesting landlord-tenant law should be streamlined. That seemed a strange case to make at this particular moment with tenants so vulnerable to displacement and eviction to the disruptions of Covid. It’s true Seattle has added a host of tenant protections over the last five years, including a move in free cap and first-in-time law passed intended to discourage discriminatory leasing practices passed in 2016. The first-in-time law was tied up in courts until recently due to appeals from the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents landlords and opposes just about every new tenant protection.

School-year eviction ban

The school-year eviction ban was the most popular measure with Councilmember Juarez joining the yes side and summing up the ‘do it for the kids’ case in her signature style: “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.”

The Losing Home report confirmed that evicting school age children is highly disruptive and negatively affects academic performance. “Of evicted respondents with school-age children, 85.7% said their children had to move schools after the eviction, and 87.5% reported their children’s school performance suffered ‘very much’ because of the eviction,” according to the report.

A staggering 4,368 kids in Seattle Public Schools have experienced homelessness, according to Schoolhouse Washington’s 2018 study, which amounts to 7.5% of all SPS students. Moreover, 88% of homeless students were students of color. This crisis just isn’t hitting Seattle’s White communities to the same degree.

Councilmember Mosqueda did author an amendment to school-year eviction ban that does allow what she describes as a narrow exemption to evict a tenant if the landlord is moving into the unit due to financial difficulties. The eviction ban language protects students, educators, and support staff at Seattle Public Schools and other private or parochial schools up to and including 12th grade.

End of tenancy loophole

The end of tenancy loophole is a gap in Seattle’s Just Cause law that allows landlord to evict tenants at the end of fixed-term leases simply by not offering a new lease. This bill rectifies the issue and offers tenants a ‘right of refusal’ to ensure landlords do rent out their apartment from under them.

The Council unanimously passed four amendments to the end of tenancy loophole bill brought by sponsors Sawant and Morales that were primarily technical clarifications. Amendment 4 clarified that housing choice voucher holders enjoy the same protections and can rescind a mutual termination agreement if they so choose.

Councilmember Pedersen thanked his colleagues for the amendments and said they made him more likely to support the bill. However, he ultimately rested on his argument that the City Council is preempted from passing the bill by a weaker version passed by the state legislature this year — HB 1236. The bill’s author Representative Nicole Macri disputed that claim, but Pedersen was unmoved and said he feared a lawsuit in his comments before voting no.

Stay Housed Coalition marches on

Fresh off its Seattle victory, the Stay Housed, Stay Healthy Coalition (of which The Urbanist is a member) is turning its attention countywide. The coalition rallied behind the eviction defense package and urged Councilmembers to back the package, but is now returned attention to King County’s tenant rights package which has been held up by County Councilmember Kathy Lambert. Here are some upcoming votes:

  • Wednesday, June 9, 10:30am: King County Council committee vote on permanent renter protections, including a strong Just Cause law and capping move-in fees and late fees.
  • Monday, June 14, 7pm: Kenmore City Council voting on emergency renter protections.
  • Tuesday, June 15, 7:30pm: Kirkland City Council voting on emergency renter protections.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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janice smith

This legislation is short-sighted. Sure, it protects non-paying tenants now, but some day renters are going to need a change in housing and they will realize at that time their options are slim. City Council cannot force private property owners to make it available to others free-of-charge, or tell property owners who can use their property. Property owners will either take the property off the market and work privately to find tenants, raise the criteria, make everyone else pay for the losses (think corporate landlords with buildings containing many units), or they will sell to owner-occupants. The latter is cheered by affordable housing advocates but in reality, struggling renting families being displaced by this legislation are not in a position to buy their former homes so they will bear the brunt of it all. That’s the irony of it all- given Sawant and Morales saying they’re sticking up for struggling families but in reality they are setting these families up for displacement and homelessness in the long term (think post-moratorium or once a property owner regains control of their property through legal action, which I think will accelerate the longer the moratoriums last).

asdf2

It’s important that people be careful of what they wish for. All of these rules that make it harder for landlords to evict non-paying tenants increase the risk to the landlord every time they rent to someone. This means that to be profitable, landlords need to either raise rents even further, so that the profits from the paying tenants compensate for the losses from the non-paying tenants – or beef up the tenant qualification standards so that people who lack a sufficient financial cushion to absorb a job loss simply don’t get rented to at all.

While I do think it’s reasonable to require landlords to give tenants at least a month or so to catch up on back rent before evicting them, the proposals from the city seem to be going way too far. For instance, the school year eviction ban creates a large class of people that can only be evicted two months out of the year. This is excessive, and might make landlords reluctant to rent to teachers and parents altogether without some kind of risk mitigation (e.g. a larger security deposit or a high-income co-signer on the lease).

Similarly, the requirement that anyone who claims to have suffered a hardship during the pandemic needs free rent more or less indefinitely is also going too far. It was reasonable enough at first, when people were dealing with sudden job losses caused by businesses being unable to operate. But, today, most stuff has opened up, and people who declined jobs out of fear of infection have had able opportunity to get vaccines to protect themselves.

I get that the city is concerned about the stress on the homeless system from large numbers of people being forced into the streets all at once, but extending the eviction moratorium doesn’t actually fix the problem, it just kicks the can down the road a few months longer, until we’re right back where we started and have to extend it again – and again. Is the intention of the city that people who suffered (or claimed to suffer) financial hardship in 2020 still be living off free rent in 2030 or 2040? I’m not sure what the city’s plan is for how and when the eviction moratorium eventually ends, or even if they have a plan.

Ott Toomet

I think this is solving a real problem using wrong tools. Sure, we need to help those who cannot pay their rent because of covid/job loss/bad luck/… But this is why one has invented unemployment benefits, housing allowance, sick pay and such tools. Currently the government seems to be unwilling to provide such social safety net, and is forcing landlords to do it instead. I understand that we need extreme measures in extreme times, but the times are not that extreme any more. Instead of just extending the moratorium, we should plan some sort of smooth transition to normality, e.g. the tenants who have been falling behind should arrange a payment plan and will have up to end of year to make it up…

From landlords’ perspective, it is better to pay predictable capital income tax that funds social services at individual level.