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EXPLAINER: Washington tenants get modified eviction reprieve

by Rachel LA Corte
| August 2, 2021 12:06 AM

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after the Biden administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Washington:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Washington is one of several states that enacted a moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings. Evictions with a 60-day notice are allowed in cases in which the landlord intends to sell or move into the property, or if an affidavit declares the tenant created health and safety problems.

Gov. Jay Inslee has extended moratorium protections several times, including last month. The protections will now remain in force until Sept. 30 to give landlords and tenants sufficient time to access federal aid.

Through the end of July, landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants for past-due rent during the pandemic until rental assistance and eviction resolution programs are in place in their county. Starting Aug. 1, tenants are expected to pay full rent unless they negotiate a lower amount with their landlord or actively seek rental assistance. Landlords must offer tenants a reasonable repayment plan before starting the eviction process and provide them a list of services and support available to them under the assistance programs.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

The Legislature approved spending $658 million in federal money to extend the state’s rental assistance program. That doesn’t include hundreds of millions of dollars from previous federal relief programs that are being distributed to landlords. More than 33,000 households have received rent assistance through the end of June, and an estimated 80,000 households are expected to receive assistance through June 2023, according to the state Department of Commerce. Updated numbers this week show that Commerce has been billed $179 million by counties allocating aid, but the agency stressed that amount does not reflect the total amount paid to landlords.

The governor also signed a “right to counsel” measure passed by the Legislature that ensures low-income tenants have legal representation when faced with eviction. Another new law that took effect this year focuses on tenant rights and the circumstances in which they can be evicted, and in some cases increasing the notice tenants must receive before vacating.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

In most judicial districts, eviction hearings in Washington continue to be held remotely. In any given year, the courts receive 17,000 to 20,000 eviction filings across the state, said Edmund Witter, an attorney with the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project. While the number has decreased during the pandemic, he expects the pace will resume once the moratorium lifts.

Recent statewide data shows just 2,700 eviction filings in 2020, said Jim Bamberger, director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid, a judicial branch agency.

WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Washington has had a tight rental market for several years, with vacancy rates at 5% or below, said James Young, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research, which looks at data for rental buildings that have at least 20 units. From spring 2015 to spring 2021, the statewide average rent for a two-bedroom apartment increased more than 37%, to $1,476, according to state data. One-bedroom apartments saw a 30% jump during that same period to a statewide average of $1,422. This spring, one-bedroom apartments in most counties outside the Puget Sound area had vacancy rates below 2%.

During the pandemic, the state saw a shift away from urban areas as people looked for cheaper housing while working remotely. That's why King County, home to Seattle, had the largest vacancy rate at 7.1% this spring, compared with smaller markets that had a rental vacancy of 0.5% in a recent survey.

Data on multifamily units of five and larger from CoStar Group, a real estate research firm, shows that as the economy reopens, demand for housing in Seattle is coming back after vacancy rates were as high as 11.4% last year, and rents are increasing again after seeing a decline.

Seattle rents increased 4.4% over the past 12 months, with a one-bedroom at $1,674 and a two-bedroom rate at $1,983.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It’s hard to say how much homelessness will increase in Washington. Witter, with the Housing Justice Project, said the Seattle region already has one of the highest homelessness rates in the country, which could increase if pandemic-related evictions soar. According to the Census Pulse Survey for the week of June 23 to July 5, about 31,000 households statewide are not paying rent and more than 174,000 have “no confidence” they could pay next month’s rent.

The Census survey found that more than 53,000 respondents said it was “very likely” they would have to leave their homes because of eviction in the next two months. More than 61,000 said it was “somewhat” likely. “It doesn’t take a lot to create a surge of homelessness,” Witter said.