King County received $145 million in rent assistance from the Federal government to distribute to tenants in what could be a godsend for many. The catch is that King County has been lagging behind other counties in disbursing those funds. In a press release today, King County Executive Dow Constantine said $63 million has been distributed to keep tenants housed and declared the County’s Eviction Protection and Rent Assistance Program (EPRAP) “fully operational” as required by the State.
Governor Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium bridge order is set to expire on October 31st, and the Governor confirmed Thursday he is not issuing another extension, as the Spokesman-Review reported.
“We’ve done about all we can do,” Inslee said. “It’s up to them to get it distributed.”.
The County’s proclamation appears a signal to Governor Inslee that it’s OK to let the moratorium lapse. Some jurisdictions like Seattle, Kenmore, and Burien have extended local eviction moratoriums through year’s end, but many living in other jurisdictions who are behind on rent will find themselves at risk of eviction come November.
Tram Tran-Larson, Community Engagement Manager at Housing Justice Project (HJP) of the King County Bar Association, is worried about what this means for tenants. HJP is the main provider of legal aid to low-income tenants in King County and also tracks evictions with a heat map visualization. King County’s tally for 2021 is currently at 674.
“Since they waited until a few days before the eviction moratorium expires to certify as fully operational, they’re sending a clear message to the Governor that they’re not supporting an extension, and it’s a clear message to tenants as well, despite the tens of thousands of applications still to be processed,” Tran-Larson said. “It’s very premature of them, because we are still have issues with their database.”
With the Governor’s bridge order in effect, Washington state landlords have been barred from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent, but have been able to use other grounds, most commonly lease term violations or the owner wishing to occupy the unit or sell. Fully lifting the moratorium and allowing evictions for nonpayment of rent is expected to unleash a larger wave of evictions that have built up over the course of a year and a half eviction moratorium that also included a statewide rent freeze until the Governor’s less restrictive bridge order in late June.
Advocates continue to press for moratorium extension
Inslee has continued to string along the moratorium in small one to three month increments, with the last extension announced on September 24th. The Stay Housed Stay Healthy coalition (of which The Urbanist and HJP are members) is urging the Governor to extend the moratorium through the year’s end. The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) Action Fund (a coalition member) also has launched a letter-writing campaign to the Governor with 1,800 letters and counting sent.
The WLIHA stresses that that eviction moratorium is working: “Protections under the bridge proclamation and your previous eviction moratorium have played a massive role in preventing homelessness. They have protected vulnerable households and have prevented racial inequities from getting even worse. What has been abundantly proven over this last year and a half is that these eviction protections are working.”
Housing advocates also point to weekly housing surveys which shows tenants continue to struggle to make rent.
“Please don’t walk away now,” the letter continues. “Tens of thousands still haven’t been helped yet: The most recent Census Bureau Pulse Survey data (week 39) finds that there are 128,126 tenants still behind in rent. Over 44,000 have children under 18 in the household. And almost 169,000 renters express no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent. Meanwhile 368,600 tenants who are current on rent report that they have had to rely on money from savings or selling assets or possessions (including withdrawals from retirement accounts) to meet their basic needs over the last seven days. National reports echo these grim numbers.”
Evictions fall hardest on those on the margins of society: “Undoubtedly, those most impacted by prematurely lifting the eviction bridge will be those historically most marginalized. BIPOC communities, people with disabilities, households with children, LGBTQIA+ communities, immigrants,” the WLIHA letter adds.
Paula Sardinas, president of the Washington Build Back Black Coalition, which backs city and state renter protections, agreed.
“There’s a housing crisis we were trying to solve before Covid. It’s now becoming exacerbated,” Sardinas said. “60,000 Seattle area renters are behind on rent, and the WBBA has been working with the Dow [Constantine], and we are thankful to see the progress that’s being made. His commitment to the communities of color, and keeping families housed is critical to our WA Build-Back Black 5-year strategy. We are committed to working with the County Executive, ensuring the community both landlords and tenants understand the program and the availability of funding.”
King County’s struggles in distributing rent assistance
King County’s initial holdup, as we reported in early September, was that it opted to set up a new database and payment automating system to distribute rent assistance in an effort to help shield nonprofit partners from liability and reporting headaches that federal contracts entail. The County then contracted out with a third party vendor, Grantcare to create the database, and Grantcare was late in delivering the project.
The program finally got up and running this month, but King County had a lot of money to distribute as the most populous county in the state, which means it is still lagging behind. Neighboring counties like Snohomish and Pierce County implemented their programs manually and were quicker to get money out the door. Pierce County was already at 59% distributed in August, but King County’s $63 million amounts to 43% of its total. The additional $16 million reserved for second-half payments of landlord advances would push that percentage to 54%.
The EPRAP program still has quite a bit of funding trickling out to tenants and their landlords. Based on the pace established earlier this month, The Urbanist had calculated King County wouldn’t be finish distributing its federal assistance by year’s end, but it appears the County is picking up the pace a bit — distributing a new high of $8 million in rent assistance last week — and turbo-charging distribution by contracting with nonprofit and community-based organization partners.
The County contracted with HJP to distribute $24 million in rent assistance which is aimed at protecting tenants facing eviction summons. Chase Gallagher, who is communication director for the King County Executive, said another $22 million would go toward community-based organizations doing outreach and processing applications. Still, housing advocates dispute if that last-minute surge equals a fully operational program.
“I wouldn’t really say that we’re ready on our end because there have been so many issues,” Tran-Larson said. “As recently as last week they are still doing database trainings for community-based organization providers. I have a hard time seeing them as fully operational.”
More than 12,000 households served, many more waiting
Executive Constantine touted the EPRAP’s successes in his release.
“The pandemic’s unprecedented economic toll threatened thousands of our neighbors with eviction, but the hard work of our staff and community partners has kept more than 12,000 households in their homes,” Executive Constantine said. “Building a robust payment system took the work of many, and there has been no higher priority than keeping people in their homes as we built the equitable recovery King County residents deserve.”
The program could help even more tenants based on volume, with nearly three times as many tenants applied than have received assistance so far.
“To date, 33,935 tenants have expressed interest in the program, and as applications are processed, the EPRAP team has found about that about 67% of applicants are eligible for payment,” the Executive’s release states. “Currently, 21,761 tenants have been selected for service and referred to a caseworker to process their application. The average amount of rental assistance is around $11,000 per household, slightly higher than King County’s initial estimates.”
Tran-Larson said rejection rate seemed “alarmingly high.” She pointed to hiccups in qualifying tenants who should have been approved based on their income but the system rejected. HJP received assurances the County would go back and double check for erroneous rejections, which could be why the rate is so high. With not everyone in need receiving rent assistance on the front-end, many could end up in eviction court.
“We’re going to be the last-ditch effort and hopefully we can settle the case with funding for tenants facing eviction,” Tran-Larson said.
The surge in outreach has also meant many new EPRAP applicants. “Over the past five weeks as both the County and local partners have conducted outreach efforts, nearly 10,000 new households have applied to the program, indicating that need in the community remains high,” the Executive’s office wrote.
It’s not clear if enough money remains in the EPRAP coffers to reach all of these new applicants. However, the Executive did note they’re hoping for additional funding.
“We also expect to receive soon additional funds to continue operating the program into 2022,” communication director Chase Gallagher said in an email. “It is also important to note that King County is not at risk of having funds reallocated or taken back for being an ‘underperforming jurisdiction’ based on recent Treasury guidance.”
State Senator Joe Nguyen (D-West Seattle), who is running against Constantine for King County Executive, has argued Constantine should extend the eviction moratorium in unincorporated King County in order to protect tenants facing evictions. (The Urbanist Elections Committee endorsed Nguyen.) Unincorporated King County — which includes communities like White Center and Skyway — is the site of a disproportionate share of the county’s evictions.
“Residents impacted by the pandemic and now on the verge of an eviction don’t need excuses. The resources are available, Snohomish and Pierce County have been able to allocate the money and this is a failure of the current Executive,” Nguyen said via email last month. “If the Executive continues to fail on getting out rental relief he needs to extend the moratorium for unincorporated areas. We are not prepared to handle the influx of eviction that might happen at the end of the month.”
In incorporated cities, it will fall on the local mayors or city councils to extend eviction moratoriums. Beyond Seattle, Burien, and Kenmore, most haven’t taken up the cause.
Update: This article was updated at 1:42pm October 29th to add Governor Inslee’s no extension announcement.
Washington Low Income Housing Alliance full letter to Governor Inslee:
Dear Governor Jay Inslee,
On October 31, Washington communities will still not be prepared for the expiration of the eviction bridge proclamation. If your bridge protections are lifted on November 1st our communities will experience an increase in unsheltered homelessness and the millions in unexpended rental assistance funds will not be able to provide the safety-net that we all banked on.
Protections under the bridge proclamation and your previous eviction moratorium have played a massive role in preventing homelessness. They have protected vulnerable households and have prevented racial inequities from getting even worse. What has been abundantly proven over this last year and a half is that these eviction protections are working. Please don’t walk away now. Tens of thousands still haven’t been helped yet: The most recent Census Bureau Pulse Survey data (week 39) finds that there are 128,126 tenants still behind in rent. Over 44,000 have children under 18 in the household. And almost 169,000 renters express no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent. Meanwhile 368,600 tenants who are current on rent report that they have had to rely on money from savings or selling assets or possessions (including withdrawals from retirement accounts) to meet their basic needs over the last seven days. National reports echo these grim numbers. A recent joint NPR and Harvard report finds significant growth in hardship by race and income: The majority of Black, Indigenous and Latinx households report facing serious financial hardship and many report losing all of their savings over the last several months.
Washington’s renters are on the brink of instability and the only thing preventing a massive increase in evictions and homelessness are the extra protections put in place while rental assistance gets distributed. Lifting these protections early will put many, many households in harms way.
At this point, all county rental assistance programs are “operational” and working hard to meet the massive need in their community. Yet BIPOC renters and organizations report significant barriers and difficulties in accessing these funds that are being made more difficult by language barriers, technology barriers and workforce issues being experienced at the nonprofit and county level.
Undoubtedly, those most impacted by prematurely lifting the eviction bridge will be those historically most marginalized. BIPOC communities, people with disabilities, households with children, LGBTQIA+ communities, immigrants, those with the lowest incomes, and other marginalized groups all face serious risks of homelessness on November 1st unless eviction protections are extended.
The undersigned organizations urge you to extend the eviction bridge protections until the end of the public health emergency or at least until rental assistance funds are expended.
Doug Trumm is the executive director 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.