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“Reasonable” doubt: Landlords, tenants want clarity on new eviction order

April 20, 2020 Updated Mon., April 20, 2020 at 9:03 p.m.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has extended a moratorium on evictions that he initially ordered last month. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has extended a moratorium on evictions that he initially ordered last month. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

There are one million and one interpretations of what is “reasonable.”

But that’s what Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest eviction edict has instructed landlords across Washington State to be.

Last week, Inslee extended – and substantially broadened – a moratorium on evictions that he initially ordered last month.

The new proclamation, which extends through June 4, continues to prohibit evictions on residential tenants who can’t afford rent, but now also encompasses commercial leases and prohibits landlords from increasing rent, collecting late fees, or threatening to take action against tenants.

It also states that landlords, after the order expires, can only collect unpaid rent accrued during the moratorium if they offer tenants a “reasonable” repayment plan.

The proclamation does not explicitly define reasonable.

Instead, it suggests a property owner can collect unpaid rent only if it demonstrates to a court that a repayment plan was offered and the tenant “refused or failed to comply with, a repayment plan that was reasonable based on the individual financial, health, and other circumstances of that resident.”

The ambiguity worries both landlords and advocates for tenants’ rights.

Steve Corker, president of the Landlords Association of the Inland Northwest, called the proclamation “very concerning,” and said it left many questions unanswered. If landlords are tasked with tailoring a plan to meet the individual’s needs, will they have access to that person’s financial information? Does the landlord treat the tenant as if they are reapplying for tenancy all over again? How does one define tenant cooperation?

Terri Anderson, co-executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, credited Inslee’s new proclamation with filling in gaps left in his original moratorium, but also expressed concern about the term “reasonable.”

“That’s just inviting litigation,” Anderson said. “Every attorney will have a different viewpoint of what is a reasonable repayment plan.”

She’s hoping that the state offers further clarity on repayment agreements before the proclamation expires on June 4. Otherwise, tenants may be quick to sign an agreement that’s not actually in their best interest, she said.

“You’re kind of under duress at this point, tenants don’t know what their situation is,” Anderson said.

And given the unpredictability of an economy roiled by the coronavirus, Anderson noted what was “reasonable” at the moment the agreement was signed could, in short order, become unfulfillable.

Landlords want consistency across jurisdictions, Corker said, something that’s been lacking as local governments, courts and the state sprang into action to prevent evictions when the pandemic hit.

The best policy to protect landlords and tenants on the West Side may not be the right fit for Eastern Washington, he added.

“It’s good intentions, but just not thought out and I think the conditions that exist in King County and the Puget Sound area are really different than what’s happening in Eastern Washington, and having everyone treated the same doesn’t recognize the difference,” Corker said.

Corker is concerned that if the moratorium is extended and a tenant accrues several months of unpaid rent, they will walk away from their obligations with little or no consequence. Landlords have reported extremely low success rates in small claims court, he said.

The new order – which extends a month beyond the current expiration date of Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order – offers a number of additional protections for tenants, both residential and commercial, that did not exist under the previous order.

Under the new order, landlords can not enforce agreements to vacate a property, even if the tenant had already signed one. Law enforcement are barred from carrying out an eviction unless the tenant poses an immediate risk to the safety of neighbors.

Landlords are also prohibited from punishing tenants who fail to pay rent by forcing them to move into a smaller apartment in the same complex or threatening to assess a late fee.

Landlords of residential tenants can not increase the rent. Commercial landlords can only increase the rent if the business has not been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic directly. If, for example, the business was nonessential and forced to close during the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, the landlord cannot increase its rent.

Inslee’s new order also bans evictions of tenants in transitional housing, from public lands like campgrounds, and from lots or parcels where motorhome owners lease the property.

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