By Becca Savransky, SeattlePI, Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Seattle City Council this week passed a bill offering more protections to prevent tenants unable to pay their rent from being evicted after the city and statewide eviction moratoriums are lifted.
The bill — passed in a 9-0 vote by the council — gives tenants a defense to use in eviction proceedings relating to not being able to pay rent for six months after Seattle’s moratorium on residential evictions is lifted. The moratorium is currently in effect through June 4. The bill is aimed at helping to keep the thousands of people impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus safely housed.
“This legislation before us today can help people stay housed and that is the bottom line,” Council President M. Lorena González said during a council meeting.
The bill expands on the city’s just cause eviction ordinance, creating an addition tool a tenant can use in eviction court proceedings. The eviction defense applies to tenants who have been financially impacted by the pandemic and have therefore been unable to pay their rent.
“What we are doing is we are enhancing existing landlord and tenant laws to benefit tenants who are going to need additional time to get their feet grounded and to be able to continue to dig out of this economic crisis,” González said.
Under the bill, landlords can still take actions associated with evictions, but tenants can use this as a defense in court. Tenants will also still accrue debt and will be expected to pay the rent that is owed.
“Providing a defense to eviction for certain causes is necessary as an additional step to protect public health to support stable housing, decrease the likelihood that individuals and families will fall into homelessness, and decrease exposure while the COVID-19 emergency exists,” the legislation said.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis said rent relief continues to be a priority for the city, but there are hundreds of thousands of people across the state who are unemployed and need help during this crisis.
“As one of the two renters on the council, I think it’s critical that we extend protection to renters in this time to make sure that we can keep people inside, especially in a time of uncertainty, in addition to public health threats,” he said during a council meeting.
“We are in a period of immense and extreme uncertainty regarding how people are going to immediately make their rent and it puts a lot of Washingtonians in a position where, while they could ordinarily be able to pay their rent on time, it might take some folks a little bit more time to do it.”
During the council meeting, council members acknowledged this is just one piece of the relief people need due to the coronavirus outbreak. Rent assistance, along with more affordable housing, is still desperately needed in the city and across the county.
The novel coronavirus outbreak has led to thousands of people across the region losing their jobs. Without a steady income, workers have struggled to pay for rent and other basic expenses. More than half a million people across Washington have applied for unemployment benefits since the pandemic started.
In March, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan issued an emergency order to temporarily stop evictions in Seattle for residents, nonprofits and some small businesses. Gov. Jay Inslee shortly after issued a statewide moratorium on evictions for people who weren’t able to pay rent. In April, he extended the moratorium through June 4. But under the eviction moratorium, people will still accrue debt and are expected to pay the rent owed after the moratorium is lifted.
Several nonprofits have rental assistance programs in place to help people pay their rent and avoid eviction, but with a growing need, those programs have been overwhelmed.
United Way of King County last month launched an expanded rental assistance program with a $5 million investment to help people behind on their April rent. Within days, the program had thousands more applications than it had the funds to serve.
Last week, Inslee announced he was extending the state’s stay-at-home order through May 31 and would continue with a phased approach to reopening the economy. The state’s plan means many people will likely be out of work for some time longer, as industries gradually reopen at limited capacities over the next several months.
Inslee has also warned if the state sees another jump in cases and hospitalization, restrictions could be put back into place. The most recent data from the Washington State Department of Health shows more than 15,000 confirmed cases of the virus