OLYMPIA – With the federal eviction moratorium having expired this weekend, tenants and landlords in Washington are relying on the state’s “bridge” program to ease them out of the situation.
For tenants and landlords alike, the new program remains confusing, and evictions are likely still coming. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium was first put into place September 2020 and has been extended three times, but expired Saturday.
The Supreme Court in June decided the CDC only had one more month to extend the moratorium, but with the COVID-19 delta variant surging, President Joe Biden called on Congress to extend the moratorium. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Biden to reconsider late Sunday.
In a last-hour effort, U.S. House members tried and failed to pass an extension on Friday.
In many states, including Idaho, a wave of evictions is likely to come. About 3.6 million people in the country said they face eviction in the next two months, according to a U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey earlier this month. Those states will likely see an uptick in eviction cases come next week.
Washington residents, however, still have some protections with Gov. Jay Inslee’s bridge program that he signed last month. The bridge program is intended to transition the state toward new housing stability programs passed by the Legislature this year. As many local jurisdictions work to process rental applications, evictions in the state likely won’t start right away.
As of Sunday, renters are expected to pay full rent and can be evicted for past rent between Feb. 29, 2020, through July 31 of this year, if certain conditions are met. First, their county must have in place operational rental assistance, eviction resolution and right-to-counsel programs as passed by the Legislature this year. The eviction resolution program first piloted late last year attempts to help renters and landlords solve disputes using resolution, legal aid and rental assistance. Tenants have the right to mediation, said Julie Griffith, executive director of the Spokane County Bar Association.
They can access a defense attorney without any cost to them. Neither the eviction resolution program nor the right to counsel program are in place statewide. Spokane County is one of the pilot counties for the eviction resolution program, but due to a backlog in the courts the Spokane County Superior Court issued an emergency standing order requiring all eviction resolution cases be filed after the moratorium is lifted.
Griffith said she expects an updated standing order to be released next week.
Although Spokane has the eviction resolution program in place, it still does not have a right to counsel program for indigent tenants. Griffith said that likely won’t be in place until at least Sept. 15. The county also is not currently offering rental assistance.
Until all three of those are met, landlords in the county cannot start the process for nonpayment evictions. They can still evict tenants for criminal reasons, or if the landlord has sold the property and tenants are required to move. When nonpayment evictions do resume in the county, tenants still have options. If they cannot pay the full rent, they can seek rental assistance or negotiate a reasonable repayment plan with their landlord.
To avoid an eviction, tenants must respond to an eviction notice within 14 days with proof of a rental assistance application or a reasonable repayment plan as settled with their landlord.
At the beginning of the moratorium, Griffith estimated about 1,600 eviction filings after the prohibition on them was lifted. She now believes that number will be greater, but they might not happen all at once, especially because of the lengthy process tenants, landlords and the courts have to go through.
“It’s really the local court that has their hand on the faucet so to speak,” she said. Despite the pause in the courts, many things are still moving forward, she said. Some tenants have learned one way or another that they are facing eviction, but they aren’t able to take it to court just yet.
‘Maze’ for tenants, confusion for landlords
As counties continue to set up the new statewide programs, the next few weeks will likely bring confusion for both tenants and landlords who will face longer processes and mediation. “It’s putting a tenant in a rat’s maze,” said Terri Anderson, Spokane director for the Tenants Union of Washington. “But if they’re able to do all these things, it’s pretty good.”
Tenants should start applying for rental assistance now, if they haven’t already, Anderson said.
If they can prove they’ve applied for rental assistance, they will likely be safe from eviction until September. If they get notice from their landlord that the eviction process is starting, they must remember to respond within 14 days. Otherwise, the eviction will continue. For tenants who need to, they have the right to counsel and a resolution program and should use it, Anderson said.
Still, it will likely take time for the new state programs to even go into effect, and until then, “evictions for nonpayment are moot,” said Steve Corker, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest. The programs still need to be fully operational, and there have to be enough attorneys and mediators available for the many cases ahead.
“Our biggest issue is the timing,” he said.
Corker also said the proclamation has vague definitions and will likely have to be interpreted by each jurisdiction. Griffith said the eviction moratorium and bridge process has been difficult for everyone as the terms keep changing, especially for landlords because most language is targeted toward them and their ability to take action.
While landlords wait for the moratorium to be lifted, Corker said rental assistance has been delayed within the city, weeks behind the county’s program. When the money does get out, it will be a big help to both landlords and tenants, he said.
“We’re just trying to get through it,” he said, “while keeping as many people in homes as possible and as many landlords in business as possible.”
Tenants not facing eviction face steep rent increases
One of the stipulations of the original eviction moratorium in Washington was a prohibition on rent increases, but with the new proclamation, rent increases are allowed, and many in Spokane are already feeling it. Spokane had the nation’s fastest monthly rent growth at 8.1% in June, and rates have gone up more than 31% since the pandemic started, The Spokesman-Review reported last month.
Corker said many landlords are raising rent as a reaction to a post-pandemic economy, one that hasn’t seen rent raises in almost two years, and a possibility of rent control in the future. Mostly, he said he’s seeing large corporations raising rent, not smaller landlords. He said the last thing he wants to do for his tenants is hit them with huge increases. Anderson said all of the phone calls they get right now have to do with rent increases, some prices doubling for tenants by September.
“It’s not sustainable,” she said.