Saturday, March 06, 2021

Lawmakers consider extension of evictions ban, free attorneys

by Sydney Brown, WNPA News Service
| February 18, 2021 1:00 AM

OLYMPIA — An extension of an eviction moratorium for another two years and free attorneys for tenants who face eviction are proposed in a new bill landlords say would decimate their industry.

“It’s our goal to balance the needs of the state but also to avoid crisis,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, to the Senate Ways & Means Committee on Tuesday.

If it becomes law, Senate Bill 5160 would ban landlords from ending a lease or refusing to renew a lease until two years after the end of a declared public health emergency on the basis of unpaid rent. This would not apply to landlords who live in the same space as their tenants, nor to landlords who plan on selling the rental property and also give their tenants at least 60 days notice.

It would also not protect tenants who break the law at the unit, permit waste or nuisance in the unit, or break their contract with their landlords.

The bill would cost about $24.8 million in the 2021-23 fiscal biennium. Most costs would fall on the shoulders of the Office of Civil Legal Aid, a state office responsible for administration and oversight of funds appropriated by the Legislature to provide civil legal aid services to low-income people.

Most landlords who testified during the bill’s hearing told the committee they feel the bill goes too far without offering financial help to property owners.

“We, too, support counsel representation for tenants. What we don’t support is a blanket, two-year eviction moratorium,” said Cristina Dugoni, a real estate investor at Davis Investors and Management LLC.

Sharon Galloway, landlord at the Forest Grove Mobile Home Park LLC, told the committee she was opposed to the bill because it might enable people who can afford their rent but choose not to pay.

“This is a horrible financial blow and psychological blow to people like me who invested everything they had to survive,” Galloway said.

The law would also allow tenants to end their lease without any added fees as long as they give at least a 20-day notice to their landlords that cites COVID-19 impact as their reason for termination. Landlords who violate this part of the law could face up to four and a half times the monthly rent of the property in a civil lawsuit, as well as court and attorney costs.

Also included for low-income renters would be readily available legal resources, including an eviction resolution pilot program. This program would provide contact information for the closest dispute resolution center, information for the county’s housing justice project or other available low-income housing services, and the contact information of the landlord and the landlord’s attorney, all of which must be given to tenants within two weeks of moving into a property.

The Office of Civil Legal Aid would also have to provide an attorney for a tenant, and the state would pay attorney costs if funds were available.

Michele Thomas, a lobbyist at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said 90% of landlords have lawyers, but only 10% of tenants do, and this disparity often is not by tenant choice.

“The right to an attorney is a basic human right that should have been codified in law a long time ago,” said Arianna Laureano, a Seattle renter who said she relied on the moratorium and would need it beyond its March 31 deadline.

In all, more than 2,000 signed in to testify during the bill’s hearing and were evenly divided between those opposed and those in support. The bill will have the chance to move in the Legislature at its virtual executive session Thursday in the Senate Ways & Means Committee.