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Tuesday, September 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Help Spokane renters without worrying where their landlords live

If you live in Spokane and lost income because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you might be eligible for rental assistance. The city is distributing money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The hitch? Your landlord must live in the city, too, or have a “principal place of business in Spokane.”

That is a ridiculous, senseless restriction. Many city renters have no idea where their landlord lives – and many rent from out-of-city or even out-of-state landlords. That doesn’t make them any less desperate to pay their rent, or any less deserving of aid.

“Most cities consider the home that the tenant lives in as the landlord’s place of business, and their residency is not considered,” Terri Anderson, interim executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, wrote in an email to City Council. “Rental assistance is designed to help Spokane renters to stabilize housing and not Spokane landlords as a financial bailout.”

The desire not to send money out of the city might be understandable, but the policy is deeply unfair and counterproductive. If local renters don’t get the help they need, they’ll have less money to spend locally – or even be forced to leave the city.

City Council President Breean Beggs said council could reconsider.

“We are waiting for the initial data back from our vendors to see if the restrictions are getting in the way of fully deploying those funds,” Beggs said.

That makes it sound like the city will only reconsider the restriction if CARES Act funding would otherwise go unspent. But that’s not the point. Residents who otherwise qualify for the assistance shouldn’t be hung out to dry because of where their landlords live. They have no control over that.

CARES Act money goes directly to landlords, covering up to four months of rent between April and Oct. 1. The money pays 80 percent of rent, with the landlord promising to forgive the rest and agreeing not to evict the tenant for the next six months.

Tenants can earn no more than 80% of the area median income and must be suffering financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city has another rental assistance program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but its income requirements are more stringent.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium protects renters. They can’t be tossed out of their homes for failure to pay rent. That’s nice – but each month puts them further behind. The rent comes due eventually.

Even if the economy recovers and they get their jobs back or their hours fully restored, these renters face the prospect of having to pay back four or five months’ worth of rent, an impossible task for low-income, paycheck-to-paycheck workers.

CARES Act funding was meant to help alleviate the pain of people put out of work by the pandemic. Withholding that relief because of where their landlords live is unconscionable and wrong. Council should change this policy now, not wait until it gets initial data back from vendors.

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