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Sue Lani Madsen: Eviction moratorium leaves landlord-tenant law even more lopsided

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Sue Lani Madsen writes a weekly column.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen writes a weekly column. (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Sue Lani Madsen The Spokesman-Review

The Tenants Union of Washington State and the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest agree Gov. Jay Inslee’s moratorium on evictions is setting the housing system up for trouble. A wave of evictions may push people into homelessness this fall.

Meanwhile, it has left Ronda Walker homeless now.

Walker’s future home is currently occupied by at least four people, she says. The grandson of the former owner came to visit his grandmother, ostensibly as a caretaker, and never left after she died in February. Two other men and a woman have also moved in.

“Even though they’re squatters in my eyes, I still have to evict them,” said Walker.

The governor’s moratorium was recently extended to Aug. 1. It has been lifted for cases where an owner wishes to live in their own property, but an eviction still requires 60 days notice to the “tenant.”

It’s a frustrating feature of Washington’s Landlord-Tenant Act even with no emergency declaration. The law defines someone who has never paid rent as a tenant if they’ve squatted long enough. In Walker’s case, it’s being used to define a woman who never offered her property for rent as a landlord.

Walker just wants a home for herself and for her significant other, Tony Suddeth, who is terminally ill.

“Tony may not even make it another two months, and he just wants to know that I’m going to be okay,” said Walker.

After surviving a drawn-out divorce, Walker said she found herself with 30 days to vacate her rural home. Finding a new place was complicated by her mini-donkeys, dwarf goats, two rescued pigs, Chinese geese and a mastiff. She bought an abandoned property in north Spokane County with no habitable dwelling but room for the animals.

She felt fortunate to find a mobile home available for the cost of moving. Walker took title to the mobile home in February from the estate of the grandmother of those now living in it . She paid the taxes and put down a $2,500 deposit with the moving company, plus a deposit for cleaning up its site. It was contracted to be moved to her property by June 1.

Then weight restrictions went on the county roads, and the governor declared a state of emergency. Walker attempted to prep the mobile home for moving in mid-May to meet the terms of the sale.

The mobile home currently sits on land owned by Jeff Wagner, who lives nearby and is trying to keep an eye on the situation.

“Squatters can have all the rights a renter would have without ever paying any rent,” said Wagner, who also manages a small apartment building in Spokane.

He is as frustrated as Walker with the situation.

The state Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division got involved after being contacted by one of the occupiers, now technically a tenant. Brionna Aho, communications director for the Attorney General’s office, provided a statement by email.

“The tenant contacted our office in mid-May 2020 because he received a notice to vacate after the proclamation was issued, and was unable to secure alternate housing during the pandemic. At the time our office was contacted, the entire state was in lockdown/phase 1. We advised the tenant to shelter in place and encouraged him to find alternate housing as soon as possible. In making this determination, our office spoke with the administrator of the estate, along with Ms. Walker.”

When an attorney from the AG’s office called to warn Walker she would be in violation of the moratorium if she served an eviction notice, Walker admits the conversation did not go well. She said she hadn’t given anyone an eviction notice because she hadn’t rented her home to anyone.

And Walker says the administrator of the estate, also the mother of the squatting grandson, had warned her that her new tenant dabbles in drugs. Walker said she has done maintenance work for mobile home parks for 17 years, and is worried about the potential for damage as the situation drags on.

Walker and Suddeth have been making do since last winter in a borrowed camper trailer with no power and no water. Aho noted in her email that according to their records, “Ms. Walker declined our offer of assistance to make sure that her own housing could be stabilized.”

Walker remembers the call differently.

“If they would have offered anything, we would have taken it,” she said.

She does not recall being offered assistance, just sympathy for her frustration and a reminder that under the law she couldn’t touch the occupiers.

“They’re protecting the wrong people. I’ve worked since I was 15 years old, now I’m homeless. I just want my home,” said Walker.

Walker’s new home still sits on its old site. Wagner is stuck paying the power bill and eventually hauling off the growing pile of trash behind the garage. The neighbors are on guard for trespassing and other mischief. And the squatters are on their way to successfully playing Washington’s lopsided Landlord-Tenant Act for a seven-month free ride.

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