Last week, the leader of Spokane’s Salvation Army made a plea: If it comes down to a choice between groceries and rent, pay the latter.
Major Ken Perine told The Spokesman-Review that his nonprofit’s food bank can feed the hungry. But cash, for payments like rent and utility bills, is harder to come by.
Perine and others worry that when temporary measures protecting tenants from evictions expire, organizations like his will see an influx of indebted people needing help with basic necessities like groceries.
“Rent’s gonna come due and people are going to owe thousands of dollars, and then what?” asked Arielle Anderson at the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last month temporarily banned evictions of residential tenants who can’t make rent.
But Inslee’s order doesn’t prevent back rent and late fees from accumulating. And it doesn’t last forever. Inslee has signaled he will extend the eviction moratorium, which is set to expire on April 17.
“What happens once these moratoriums expire?” asked Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
Renter households in Washington will be the last to experience a recovery following an economic recession, Thomas said. And even during the relative economic boom times of the last several years, many renters struggled to save money.
“When the money runs out, there’s nothing to fall back on,” Thomas said.
In response to the economic suffering caused by the social distancing measures taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus, varying forms of moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures have been adopted on the local, state and federal levels.
Inslee ordered a moratorium on evictions of residential tenants who are unable to make rent that expires on April 17. He told reporters last Friday he likely would extend the moratorium to May 4 in conjunction with an extension of his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, but has yet to formally do so.
Inslee also noted that the state has been working to handle the unprecedented number of claims it has received for unemployment benefits and send out checks as quickly as possible.
“We don’t want additional homelessness during this time. That’s why we took these measures by executive action,” Inslee said. “And we’re going to do everything that we can to help people through this crisis, as fast as we can, until we get to calmer waters.”
Under a judge’s emergency order, the Spokane County Superior Court has stopped processing evictions until April 27. Locally, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward signed an emergency declaration halting all eviction and foreclosure actions in the city until April 30.
On the individual tenant level, that patchwork of restrictions is difficult to navigate or predict. The same rules don’t apply to a resident of Spokane Valley as they do a resident in Spokane, even if they share the same landlord.
And regardless of how long protections are in place, tenant advocates and property owners say preparations should be made now for a time when they’re not.
The state housing alliance has advocated for robust state funding of an emergency rental assistance program that will keep tenants in their homes and allow landlords to continue to pay their mortgages when the eviction moratorium is lifted.
While landlords shouldn’t expect to be “bailed out at their inflated rent levels,” Thomas argued they should accept rental assistance “at a reasonable amount” that will keep them afloat. In return, landlords would agree not to take action against their tenant for rent in arrears.
In its COVID-19 guidelines, the Washington State Landlords Association advised its members to work with tenants by offering payment plans and waiving late fees.
The Landlords Association also advised members to prepare to potentially access the state’s Landlord Mitigation Fund, which was established in 2018 and helps landlords recover up to 14 days of unpaid rent from tenants receiving rental assistance.
In the absence of statewide action or funding, the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest is imploring landlords take a personal, whatever-works approach to tenants struggling during the economic downtown. Some landlords have agreed to wait for tenants to qualify for unemployment benefits, while others have just outright waived a month’s rent.
“Work with those tenants on a plan. We’re asking that tenants, when possible, can make a symbolic or token payment,” said Steve Corker, the organization’s president.
Corker said the association estimates that about 60% of tenants still will be able to meet their obligations. But of the remaining 40%, about 80% already are in low-income housing, he said, which is a concern.
“The reality is that probably 95% of the tenants are the type of tenants that everybody wants to keep,” Corker said. “With good communication, I’m seeing people work and do remarkable things. I haven’t sensed the exploitation on either part.”
Avista has temporarily suspended utility shutoffs, late fees and collections. It offers several programs to help customers facing hardship and is part of a new fundraising effort with the city of Spokane to help provide emergency assistance to those at risk of falling behind on their bills.
The utility company is asking customers to pay what they can now and reach out to its customer service representatives if they need help.
“Hopefully on the back end, the balances aren’t nearly as large,” said Kevin Christie, senior vice president of external affairs and chief customer officer at Avista.
It’s also enhanced other programs, like its low-income rate assistance, by suspending the one-time usage limit. The goal is to reduce the amount customers, both residential and businesses, owe when the pandemic recedes and things return to normal.
“We’ve never experienced this before, so what happens at the end when we’re all back into a relatively normal state is a little bit uncertain,” Christie said.
While it remains unclear when the rent and utility bills will really, finally be due, Anderson believes Washington has the aptitude to prepare for that day.
“We’re living just in unprecedented times, and so I think having the call for compassion and grace has never been louder than right now,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be an opportunity to see the level of humanity we can actually extend one another.”
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