The end of 2020 is looming as the end of forgiveness for tenants who owe back rent to landlords, and court officials are pushing mediation to avoid a litigation logjam.
Spokane is one of six counties statewide that are part of a pilot program intended to get tenants and landlords to start talking about possible solutions to unpaid rent during eviction moratorium expiring Dec. 31. Two firms in Spokane County have received federal assistance funds to promote mediation for the estimated hundreds of renters who might otherwise be taken to court due to unpaid rent.
“We’re trying to keep families from becoming homeless, and we’re trying to keep landlords from filing for bankruptcy,” said Leslie Ann Grove, executive director of Northwest Mediation Center, one of the two Spokane County mediators tasked with administering the program.
Local representatives for both landlords and tenants say the mediation program could be helpful in stopping the accumulation of a debt that ultimately has to be paid, and in giving those facing hardship more time to avoid being pushed out of housing – a period that likely could be extended by order of Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s already issued several extensions to the eviction moratorium handed down in March.
“It does look like it could buy some time,” said Terri Anderson, an executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State based in Spokane.
“We’re really trying to keep people in their homes. Evictions are expensive; transitions are expensive,” said Steve Corker, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest.
The pair has been lobbying elected officials to ease the potential wave of legal actions and housing crises since the pandemic began, and while mediation could get together two parties who would otherwise avoid each other, more financial assistance will also be needed, they said.
Under an order from Spokane Superior Court Judge Harold Clarke signed Oct. 30, landlords will not be able to file what’s known as an unlawful detainer action – the legal step toward eviction – without written proof they’ve tried to negotiate with a tenant owing back rent. A multistep process leads to that form, beginning with informal discussions that ratchet up and can include legal counsel for the tenant, Grove said.
“Either party can request mediation. Then, the tenant would be hooked up with a lawyer, if they are eligible,” she said.
The possibility of legal counsel is one of the benefits of mediation for the tenant, Anderson said. While criminal defendants are assured legal counsel in courts, that’s not true in civil matters, including ones involving housing.
“Even though we do not have right to counsel for eviction, this would provide tenants access to legal representation,” Anderson said.
Grove said her firm, which along with the Fulcrum Institute Dispute Resolution Clinic will provide the mediations, is also working on finding volunteer attorneys to represent low-income landlords.
If the talks are unsuccessful, an attorney may then file the unlawful detainer action, according to the order.
Both Northwest Mediation Center and Fulcrum are hiring two staff members, respectively, to handle incoming cases. But Grove admitted she didn’t know whether that would be sufficient to handle the caseload in Spokane, while noting that the pilot program is currently only available to people living in Spokane County.
“We’re trying to do the best we can with no information,” Grove said.
A similar program in Snohomish County had already attracted 900 applicants, she said.
Based on the number of people seeking financial assistance, the need is likely great.
SNAP, the nonprofit assisting low-income residents, recently finalized its contract with Spokane County that will provide an additional $3.5 million in rental assistance to those who qualify. Assistance amounts can cover up to six months of back rent, or five months of back rent and a future month, said Carol Weltz, the nonprofit’s director of community engagement.
The organization already had a waiting list of 1,300 applicants as of Thursday, Weltz said. Because the money is coming from a program administered through the federal government, it must be spent by Dec. 30, meaning tenants who are facing financial hardship have a limited window to apply.
“There’s not a super long time to do this,” said Nicole Bishop, a spokeswoman for SNAP. “A huge reason for this grant is to prevent a tsunami of evictions.”
In order to be eligible, a tenant must live in Spokane County, have at least one month of unpaid rent since March 1 and the household’s income must be below 80% of the area’s median income over the past 60 days. For a family of four, the median income is $61,900 annually or $5,158 a month, before taxes.
In addition, the tenant must also fulfill one of these requirements: half of your income is spent on rent; you’ve been homeless in the past five years; you’ve been evicted in the past seven years; your housing was disrupted due to discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation or religion; you’re at severe risk of contracting the virus per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines; or any member of your household has a disability.
Applicants do not have to be U.S. citizens to receive funding, and the agency will not share any citizenship information, Weltz emphasized. Residents can also submit all their documents online through snapwa.org/erap to speed the process.
The deadline for assistance, which can aid a tenant when they come in for mediation, demonstrates a bigger concern, representatives for landlords and tenants said. To truly escape an untenable situation where landlords are going unpaid and tenants are racking up debt, more federal action is needed, they said.
“I could see how this program would work if we had really robust rental assistance, and tenants weren’t applying,” Anderson said. “That’s not the problem here; we don’t have enough assistance.”
Included in a second coronavirus aid package passed by House Democrats this summer was a $100 billion emergency rental assistance program, the bulk of which would be used to provide short- and medium-term assistance for very poor renters making less than half the area median income. That bill has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Anderson said she also feared landlords, once the eviction moratorium ended, would simply end their lease agreement and send 20-day notices to vacate to tenants who are now month-to-month, and not even try to engage in mediation. Such a resolution would be permitted under state law.
Corker said he anticipated Inslee would extend the moratorium past Dec. 31, and that the Legislature would be able to address some of the concerns of both parties when it reconvenes next year.
A development out of the hands of tenants and landlords is the production and distribution of a vaccine, which would get people back to work and able to pay their rent in a timely manner, Corker said. Help could also be in the form of tax credits, which would incentivize property owners to work with their tenants and potentially write off some of the losses made unavoidable by the pandemic.
“With forgiveness, and some other things, we could walk out of this,” Corker said.