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‘A tsunami of people in need’: Rental crisis could hit Spokane when eviction moratorium ends

UPDATED: Wed., June 10, 2020

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

Terri Anderson and Steve Corker often disagree over the role of government in matters involving renters and landlords, but a common fear has recently united them: a massive wave of evictions that could soon be coming to Spokane County.

Anderson is the interim executive directors of the Tenants Union of Washington State, and Corker is president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest. Together they say that when Gov. Jay Inslee’s moratorium on most types of eviction ends Aug. 1, landlords will be able to take their tenants to court for not paying rent. The result is that many tenants who are out of work and out of savings will be evicted.

“It’s like a dam,” Anderson said. “you’re holding it up with your arms, but what’s going to happen when that moratorium is lifted and that dam breaks?”

Corker said the impacts will likely go far beyond evictions: rentals owned by landlords struggling to manage their units or pay their mortgages may disappear from the rental market entirely.

“You could lose a significant number of housing units that right now are serving the most challenged people in our community,” Corker said. “When you look at Hillyard, East Central and West Central, we have a lot of older homes. If those go out, that housing won’t be there.”

In Spokane County, 48.4% of renters use more than 30% of their income for rent, according to Spokane Trends, an Eastern Washington University community indicators project.

Anderson said the high number of households that use so much of their income on rent, paired with high unemployment, puts both renters and landlords in a difficult situation. She anticipates issues all over the county, but worries the most evictions will occur in Airway Heights and within Spokane city limits, which have more renters than the rest of the area.

Corker and Anderson worked together to contact Spokane County and the city of Spokane to request rental assistance for tenants to stabilize the rental housing market before a crisis hits the area. While the city of Spokane is working to get $500,000 in COVID-related federal grants available for rental assistance, Anderson and Corker do not believe that will cover the growing need.

They are looking to the Spokane County Commissioners to use some of the $90 million they received in COVID-19 aid money through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for rental assistance.

In the past month, commissioners have discussed spending some of that money on public health, temporary jail structures, personal protective equipment and food banks, as well as financial assistance for the airport and for economic and tourism organizations such as Greater Spokane Incorporated and Visit Spokane.

Spokane County Commissioners have authorized $6 million to be spent to balance the Spokane Regional Health District’s budget and pay for contact tracing, which Corker and Anderson support, but they say stabilizing housing should be next.

Corker anticipates landlords and tenants will need about $500,000 a month during the next several months to make it through a potential eviction crisis. Most nonprofits said they don’t know how bad evictions will get or how much money will be needed, but agreed that existing resources likely wouldn’t be enough.

“Everything in a person’s life is centered on housing and home,” Anderson said. “If that’s gone, the ability to get our economy back up is very reduced.”

Some nonprofits, such as Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners, Spokane Valley Partners, Catholic Charities, Family Promise and the Salvation Army have rental assistance programs, but Corker and Anderson, as well as the nonprofits themselves, fear their existing resources could be overwhelmed.

“It’s going to be a tsunami of people in need,” said Carol Weltz, director of community action for SNAP, “and we don’t have the funds to help all those people.”

Weltz said SNAP is already receiving more calls for rental assistance, and anticipates those calls for aid will increase over the next few months. She said a massive housing disruption, in both renters and those who pay mortgages, will likely impact the community in a number of ways, similar to the economic crisis in 2008.

“The ripple effect will be huge, and I think it’s going to be years before we recover,” Weltz said.

Joe Ader, executive director of Family Promise, said he expects the brunt of the eviction crisis to fall on families.

Many of those who have lost their jobs in the hospitality and restaurant industry are young parents, he said. And even if those jobs return soon, adequate child care may take longer to come back, and many parents, especially single parents, may not return to work because they do not have a safe place to send their children.

Ader doesn’t expect a rapid wave of evictions, but a longer, sustained process. Families who lost their financial footing during the pandemic may manage to hold on for a few months before losing their housing. Without government intervention, he anticipates more homelessness and housing difficulties .

“I expect us to be in the same situation as before, but worse,” Ader said.

Ader, as well as SNAP Homeless Services Manager Arielle Anderson, fear a wave of evictions could put a strain on Spokane’s homeless resources, which are already stretched thin.

“The system is already overwhelmed,” Anderson said. “It’s already bursting, and it’s just going to add a whole other layer to that if we aren’t proactive now.”

Both said nonprofits want to help people before they become homeless, because it is easier in the long run to help people get back on their feet while they are in their homes instead of waiting until they have lost their housing, stability and have an eviction on their record.

Nonprofit and housing advocates say the community and elected officials still have a few months to intervene.

Despite job loss, intense stress and instability during the COVID-19 pandemic, most tenants have been paying rent within a week or two of when it’s due, Corker said. Those who can’t have had discussions with their landlords to work out temporary agreements or payback plans. He said only a small percent, most of whom had issues with their landlords before the pandemic, have not been paying at all.

David Stone, program manager for Spokane Valley Partners, said the eviction crisis will likely impact parts of society differently, and evictions will likely continue for months.

Those who face eviction first were likely living paycheck-to-paycheck or in a crisis before the pandemic. Many people in that situation have been able to keep paying rent, thanks to increased unemployment benefits from the CARES Act, a tax return or a $1,200 stimulus check. Increased unemployment benefits are scheduled to end in July.

Stone said some jobs have been coming back recently, but those gains likely won’t be enough to cover the massive back rent many will owe over the next couple of months, repayment plans on top of regular rent or other debts that have compounded.

Landlords will also face compounding expenses over the next few months, said Kyle Woodring, government affairs director for the Rental Housing Association of Washington.

The Rental Housing Association of Washington represents many smaller landlords who often only have enough savings to cover an unexpected maintenance expense, like a water heater. He said months with no payments, or only partial payments, of rents put a landlord in a difficult position, and that some landlords will have to sell, or be foreclosed upon, if they don’t receive some relief soon. Some landlords were also able to get mortgage relief or forbearance, but that only lasts a limited time.

He said landlords are also soon going to have to pay property taxes they were able to defer until this summer. Spokane County’s property taxes, for example, are due Monday.

The Rental Housing Association has urged its members to work with tenants, hold off on evictions and late fees, but landlords will burn through their savings eventually, Woodring said.

“A lot of my members can go a few weeks. But a few months, that’s where the concern level really raises,” he said.

Woodring said that rental assistance is the easiest way to help landlords hold onto their property and tenants stay out of debt. Banks are regulated federally and trying to work with them to get landlords through a crisis will be complicated, and renters will still owe months of rent.

On the other hand, if tenants receive rental assistance, they will be able to pay their obligation, and landlords won’t have to worry about a potential foreclosure or serious financial issues themselves.

“That’s the No. 1 thing that can help everybody,” he said.

Others leaders of nonprofits also urged local and state leaders to consider rental assistance or other creative solutions to help the rental market make it through the pandemic.

Ader suggested community members donate to nonprofits that help prevent homelessness, volunteer or, if they own property that they had previously used as a vacation rental or that is vacant, offer assistance to nonprofits that provide housing assistance to get ahead of a potential shortage.

“We just need to be creative and think outside the box,” he said.

While Congress has been working on a second stimulus bill that includes a rental assistance program, nonprofits and housing advocates hope elected officials act in case relief doesn’t come to the area in time, or at all.

Anderson and Corker plan to keep connecting with local elected officials about rental assistance, arguing that housing and health are interconnected issues that should be high on their priority list.

County Commissioner Al French said he would need data, a dollar amount and a formal request before voting to use some of the $90 million in CARES Act funding for rental assistance. He said cities should also consider using their CARES funding to help with rental assistance.

“I will not be surprised if there’s not enough funds to cover everything,” he said. “That’s why we need to be very strategic, to make sure we get the biggest bang for the buck that we can.”

French said he considered the letter from Anderson and Corker more of a wish list and not a formal request, and that he is still focused on jobs and economic development, saying that’s the best way to get the community through economic hardship caused by the pandemic.

“Until we can get money into people’s pocket, until we can get them working, that’s what’s going to get us out of this whole situation,” French said. “Until people can get to work, there’s no money to pay for rent.”

While Spokane County received the most money to respond to COVID-19, the city of Spokane received about $6.7 million and Spokane Valley received about $2.9 million. Small cities such as Airway Heights, Liberty Lake and Cheney received between $200,000 and $400,000, and the smallest towns, such as Fairfield, received the minimum of $25,000 to assist with COVID-19 recovery.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said he would like to see what other cities can contribute, and how much need is in different cities before making a decision on rental assistance. But he said the issue was on the list commissioners had made while brainstorming ways to use the CARES funding, and that he was open to it.

Kerns also recently spoke to Corker about the issue, and said he is working on talking to county employees who administer grant and aid funding for issues like homelessness and rental assistance to get a better understanding of what the need will look like.

“There’s a lot of questions that still need to be asked,” he said. “Every time something new comes up, we need to get more information. We want to make sure we maximize these dollars for the greatest good, but stay within the legal parameters.”

Commissioner Mary Kuney said she would like to see what the cities are willing to contribute and how far the other funding the county has already dedicated to rental assistance goes before making a decision about future funding.

During the past few weeks, other groups, such as Second Harvest, have met with county commissioners to discuss specific funding requests. Kuney said she hasn’t seen a formal request from a group that provides rental assistance, and hasn’t seen data that shows how big the need will be.

“It’s hard to just throw dollar amounts until you know what the true need is,” Kuney said.

She said continuing to fund public health is still her first priority, but families falling into homelessness is a concern.

“I would rather help people stay in their homes than become homeless,” Kuney said, “It’s traumatic on families, so we want to make sure we take care of that family.”

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