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In COVID crisis, focus shifts from tenant protection to financial support

Steve Corker,  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
Steve Corker, (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

Amid a global pandemic and precipitous economic decline, the ongoing debate over tenant protections in Spokane’s tight housing market has taken a back seat to a more pressing issue.

Landlords and tenants both say they need money to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic and have set aside the long-simmering debate about tenants’ rights – for now.

“It’s formed kind of a unity between all parties to basically go after the dollars to keep people in their homes,” said Steve Corker, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued, then extended, an order temporarily prohibiting evictions for failure to pay rent shortly after the pandemic took hold. But the order expires on Aug. 1, and Inslee has yet to commit to extending it.

“We are actively considering that,” Inslee told reporters last week.

Meanwhile, the Spokane City Council again delayed action last week on a number of proposed protections for tenants that were first proposed last year but stifled by opposition from landlords who claimed they were overly burdensome and would inadvertently worsen the city’s housing crisis.

The City Council’s inaction last week only magnifies the importance of Inslee’s order, said Terri Anderson, interim executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.

“We just have to work harder to get the governor to extend the moratorium,” Anderson said.

With the number of new COVID-19 cases continuing to rise statewide and in Spokane County, people who are actively battling the virus could be evicted if Inslee does not extend protections, Anderson added.

Anderson hoped the governor would extend the order at least until Spokane County is in Phase 3. It is currently in Phase 2, and Inslee has paused the progress of counties statewide in response to rising case counts.

If and when the eviction moratorium expires, the Spokane City Council is prepared to act and replace it with temporary protections of its own, much like the council did before Inslee revised and strengthened his initial order this spring, according to City Council President Breean Beggs.

The case for assistance

An increasing number of tenants are late on their rent payments or failing to pay altogether, Corker said. Based on a recent survey, Corker said between 15% and 18% of tenants in local low-income housing were late or did not pay their rent at all in June.

“Our best estimate is that’s creating an obligation of somewhere between $2 and $2.5 million,” Corker said.

If tenants and landlords receive their “fair share” of coronavirus aid, Corker said, “we could probably prevent some catastrophic types of events.” At the current trend, some 30% of low-income renters could be behind on payments within the next few months, Corker estimated.

When the eviction moratorium expires, Corker warned that courts will begin to fill up with evictions at a volume they will be unable to process without state or federal rental assistance funding.

Corker’s argument is an economic one. The $500 or $600 per month it might cost the government to keep a person in their home is far less than what it will spend providing that same person with a bed at a homeless shelter and other services once they are evicted.

Some action to mitigate the shortfall in rent already has been taken by local governments.

Earlier this week, the Spokane Valley City Council decided to dedicate about $734,000 of its $2.9 million in CARES Act funding toward rental and mortgage assistance.

The Spokane City Council set aside $500,000 of funding from the department of Housing and Urban Development for a rental assistance program, and could increase that figure on Monday.

Last month, Inslee announced $100 million would be allocated to the Department of Commerce for rental assistance statewide, a portion of which will make its way into Spokane and help alleviate the problem, Beggs said.

Both Corker and Anderson have called on Spokane County commissioners to allocate a portion of its roughly $90 million in CARES Act funds toward rental assistance.

Tenant (and landlord) protections

While the current crisis has delayed conversations around tenant laws, they have not completely stalled.

Last week, the Spokane City Council again delayed – this time by 90 days – a slate of landlord-tenant laws first proposed by Beggs last year.

“I think the City Council realized that we have another three months to make sure that what we do propose helps the situation, and doesn’t exacerbate it,” Corker said of Monday’s delay. “We’ve got bigger things to think about than evictions and tenant fairness.”

Beggs initially introduced his proposal as an emergency ordinance. Though landlords bristled, arguing his proposal was rushed and lacked input, Beggs countered that the city’s growth and subsequent housing crisis demanded action to protect tenants from unjust action by landlords.

His proposals included a requirement that landlords cite one of several specific causes for evictions, restrictions on the fees landlords can impose on tenants, and a relocation fee landlords must pay if they substantially increase a tenant’s rent.

“We did not have four votes to pass (them),” Beggs said Friday. “The choice was to simply vote them down or to keep them alive.”

So Beggs backed off, instead establishing a workgroup comprised of stakeholders in both camps. They’ve met regularly in the last several months and claim to have found common ground.

Despite the delays, it’s still an emergency issue, Beggs said.

“When the market is at 5% vacancy rate, the market is working and bad landlords aren’t going to get tenants. But at half (a percent) or 2%, then the market isn’t working,” Beggs said.

When Beggs’ proposal is reintroduced, it will be after a bit of rebranding and an effort to find balance. Tenants need to be protected, but Beggs said the city shouldn’t take action that drives landlords out of the market.

“It certainly includes tenant protections. But in this new round we’ve tried to say in order for this to work, and to get enough votes, we’re also going to need to protect landlords as well,” Beggs said. “I’m looking at it really as just a better rental system, as opposed to protections for one side or the other.”

There are policy changes that could benefit both sides, Beggs said. For example, the city could facilitate the creation of a universal background check system. Landlords could conduct an additional background check, but would be prohibited from charging a tenant for it.

“That’s a kind of win-win, and I think the city could be a catalyst on that. That money wasn’t going to landlords, it was going to credit check companies,” Beggs said. “We’re trying to look at those kinds of solutions.”

Despite the delay last week, Anderson remains optimistic that the City Council will act and that the work group’s efforts will not be in vain.

“We all have a common goal, and we do want to make this work, so I do feel that there really is good faith in all the members who are contributing,” Anderson said.

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