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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is extending the city’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium through September

UPDATED: Fri., June 18, 2021

By Daniel Beekman and Heidi Groover Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is again extending the city’s COVID-19 moratorium on evictions, this time through Sept. 30, her office said Friday.

Seattle’s extension will “ensure we can provide the cash rental assistance and housing support that is critical to stabilizing the community as we reopen,” Durkan said in a statement.

The city’s moratorium was set to end June 30, but Seattle and King County are still in the process of distributing tens of millions of dollars in payments to landlords on behalf of tenants who are behind on rent.

A similar, statewide moratorium on evictions is still set to expire June 30, with Gov. Jay Inslee mulling what to do.

Residential landlords groups criticized Durkan’s announcement, while tenant advocates hailed the decision. An estimated 86,500 people, or about 10% of renters, are behind on their rent across the Seattle metro area, which includes Tacoma and Bellevue, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Initially established in March 2020, Seattle’s moratorium is an attempt by the city to stave off evictions of people who lost jobs because of the pandemic and fell behind on their rent payments. This is the fifth extension Durkan has ordered.

The city’s moratorium applies to residential, nonprofit and small-business tenants, with small businesses defined as those with 50 or fewer employees. Most evictions are prohibited for those tenants, including evictions for nonpayment of rent, though tenants remain legally obligated to pay rent and can accumulate debt.

Seattle is requiring landlords to offer payment plans and has banned late charges and interest. Evictions can be sought in dangerous situations.

Landlords have objected to extensions of eviction bans.

“The conditions that caused the enactment of the moratorium no longer exist,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs at the Washington Multi-family Housing Association, citing rising vaccination rates and the economy reopening.

Extending the moratorium “is really just kicking the can down the road and not actually fixing anything for anyone,” he said.

Durkan’s latest order says that on Sept. 30 the city moratorium will sunset and a city law providing tenants a six-month defense in court against eviction due to pandemic hardship will take effect.

Seattle’s City Council passed additional tenant-protection laws this month, including a defense in court against evictions that are based on rent debt accumulated during the pandemic. Tenants will need to sign declarations that they suffered financial hardships during the crisis.

Now that tenants can cite that defense, City Hall should focus on “getting assistance to the people who need it right now,” Waller’s organization and the Rental Housing Association of Washington said in a joint statement.

But tenant advocates praised Durkan’s move Friday and said Inslee should follow suit for the state moratorium.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Everyone is recovering. Things are opening back up.’ That is not true for a lot of low-income households in Seattle and across Washington state,” said Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

Among white tenants surveyed by the Census Bureau in late May and early June, about 8% were behind on rent, compared to about 15% of Black tenants and 15% of Hispanic or Latino tenants.

Holding off on evictions provides time for officials to ramp up assistance mechanisms and gives tenants “more time to get back in the workforce, get jobs and start saving up to pay back the significant amount of arrears they’ve accumulated,” Thomas said.

Even as the end date approaches, some Washington counties have not distributed rent assistance.

The Legislature recently passed a law guaranteeing free eviction-court lawyers for tenants with low incomes, but those lawyers are not yet in place. (The law gave the state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid three months to draft a plan to implement the law within one year.) The state is also establishing mediation programs to help landlords and tenants avoid court.

That leaves Inslee considering whether to extend the state’s moratorium again.

“We are concerned about the transition period where these programs are not yet up and running,” the governor said Thursday. “We have not made any final decisions on this.”

Inslee said his office would “have some decisions obviously before the end of June,” but offered no details.

King County distributed about $38 million in rental assistance last fall, but has yet to distribute an additional $145 million in federal funds earmarked for that purpose. Seattle has distributed at least $18 million in rental assistance since COVID-19 hit and recently approved an additional $23 million in federal funds.

The city and county will soon consider more funds from the latest federal stimulus, the American Rescue Plan Act.

The county is still processing applications for rental assistance and ramping up a database to manage the surge, according to Mark Ellerbrook, director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services.

More money is expected to start flowing in mid-July, Ellerbrook said. To qualify, tenants must make half of the area’s median income or less; the median is roughly $41,000 annually for an individual.

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