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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tenants are scared. Landlords are fed up. Despite Inslee’s moratorium ‘bridge,’ eviction worries loom

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has created a bridge program to serve as a transition from the state’s eviction moratorium.  (Ted S. Warren)
By Ted McDermott and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

Brandi Bennett is scared.

Since being diagnosed in December with a rare form of cancer known as soft tissue sarcoma, the single mother of two has been in and out of chemotherapy, severely immunocompromised while a pandemic lurks outside her door.

By Thursday, even that thin barrier of safety may be gone. That’s the day she believes the protections that have kept her housed for the past few months will expire, and that she will be cast into an uncertain future.

“I can’t imagine the day that I have to leave here,” she said, beginning to cry. “That scares me.”

Bennett is just one of millions of Washington residents who have been granted unprecedented protections since Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a moratorium on evictions. But on July 1, they will begin to fade away.

As they do, Bennett suspects she will be among the first to suffer.

Inslee has argued that his moratorium on evictions was designed to protect people against just this kind of circumstance, when the pandemic has made housing a matter of public health.

Landlords, though, argue his moratorium has had a host of unintended negative consequences, not only for property owners but for renters. They say it has encouraged people to sell rental properties, thereby reducing an already insufficient supply, and has given free rein to bad actors who make life miserable for their fellow tenants, among other problems.

Bennett’s saga began in October, when the home she had been renting in Nine Mile Falls was sold. The eviction moratorium still allowed renters to be forced out when the property got a new owner.

When Bennett had difficulty finding a new place in the region’s extremely tight housing market, a friend offered to let her stay with her in East Spokane.

But after she was diagnosed with cancer, Bennett felt she couldn’t remain.

Again, however, she found it “impossible” to find a new rental. And the clock was ticking: Bennett had to live “somewhere to start treatment,” she said.

She found an Airbnb in Chattaroy, she said, and booked it for two months.

As she dealt with chemo and cancer, Bennett said she lost her job but fell into a bureaucratic gap that hasn’t allowed her to collect unemployment or disability payments.

That made it difficult to keep up with payments, and led her landlord to seek Bennett’s removal.

Bennett qualified for a grant to pay her rent but without a lease, she couldn’t qualify. She said she tried to convince the Airbnb’s owner to draw up a lease so she could pay what she owed, but the landlord instead continued to pursue eviction.

“This is way more complex than the average circumstances,” Bennett acknowledged. “And I don’t think most landlords are like this.”

She also said she doesn’t want to be “a pain in the rear.”

Under extraordinary circumstances, Bennett said she feels she has had no choice: “I feel like I’m fighting for my life.”

Last Thursday, with the threat of the pandemic waning, Inslee attempted to strike a middle ground by implementing a “bridge” extension of the moratorium.

People on both sides of the debate were left irked and confused.

Spokane-area tenant advocates quickly voiced concern about potential loopholes and workarounds in the governor’s plan, while landlords said many property owners are falling into debt as the state limits their ability to evict tenants who have willfully neglected to pay rent.

“It feels like a really shaky, unsteady bridge in Spokane,” said Terri Anderson, Spokane director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.

Bennett believes she’s among those who could fall off. As of Thursday, she said, her landlord can give her a seven-day eviction notice, because the bridge extension no longer protects people living in Airbnbs.

Steve Corker, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest, was blunt.

“Nobody knows what this means,” he said.

Adding to the frustration is that Inslee’s announcement came days before the eviction moratorium was set to expire.

“The governor waits until the last minute on something that takes place in less than 10 days, without clarification, and yet we’re threatened with lawsuits if we don’t follow the guidelines properly,” Corker said.

Inslee made clear that his previous eviction moratorium, which had been in place since March 2020, will not continue past its expiration on June 30.

But everything will not revert to prepandemic norms.

Instead, what Inslee outlined was a modified set of protections for tenants, along with a number of new conditions under which they can be evicted until the new order expires on Sept. 30.

Beginning Aug. 1, tenants will be expected to pay full rent unless they’ve negotiated a different payment plan with their landlord. If tenants fall behind, landlords are required to offer a reasonable repayment plan before moving forward with an eviction.

Landlords will also be allowed to increase rent, subject to the 60-day notice requirements under state law.

“That is essentially the big change, is that as of Sept. 1 for the first time in 14 or 15 months, rents could go up,” Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said. “I don’t think there’s a solution for that, other than more rental assistance to cover that difference in the rent.”

Inslee was unwilling to open the floodgates to evictions, noting that two components of the legislature’s recently passed landlord-tenant reform – eviction resolution programs and the right to counsel program for indigent tenants – haven’t been implemented statewide.

Meanwhile, cities and counties have lagged in providing access to rental assistance programs, despite receiving millions of dollars in federal and state aid.

Landlord and tenant representatives voiced confusion about Inslee’s bridge, unsure which requirements apply to each county and exactly when they take effect.

Nothing is certain until Inslee releases his final order containing specific legal language, Beggs noted. After talking with staff in Inslee’s office on Friday, Beggs said it’s clear the governor’s intent is that it’s “basically saying, it’s status quo, Spokane” until indigent tenants have access to attorneys and rental assistance programs are “in place.”

“The problem is they do not currently have a definition of what being ‘in place’ means,” Beggs said. “My strong request was ‘please make it crystal clear when a county is in compliance or not.’ ”

The intent of Inslee’s order is to prevent a tenant from being evicted for nonpayment of rent unless they’ve willfully ignored rental assistance programs and offers of mediation.

Under Inslee’s bridge, landlords cannot evict a tenant for past-due rent accumulated from Feb. 29, 2020, to July 31, 2021, unless there is an active rental assistance program and an eviction resolution program in their county.

Spokane County already meets the latter of the two conditions. It was one of six counties to pilot the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program, which was created last year.

The program hasn’t worked exactly as it was intended – to mediate disputes between landlords and tenants in an effort to avoid evictions, according to Julie Griffith, executive president of the Spokane County Bar Association.

The bar association is participating in Spokane’s eviction resolution program through its Volunteer Lawyer Program’s Eviction Defense Project.

The program is “supposed to be getting people to the table to mediate resolution, but what we’re finding is the time typically runs out on those without that mediation happening,” Griffith said.

The mediation process can appear foreign and scary to a tenant, Griffith said.

“The ideals are fantastic, but when it comes to what’s actually occurring, there’s some sort of disconnect there, and I do think it revolves around the clients and their understanding of mediation,” Griffith said.

Corker’s assessment of the eviction resolution program was harsh.

“They don’t have any (rental assistance) money, and the whole basis of the program is to try to find funding,” Corker said. “If not, do we wait for it, or do we walk into eviction?”

The ability to provide an attorney to every indigent tenant will also be a challenge.

“We’re not ready, and we have a lot of advocates and providers in the city that have been working hard, but this is just putting too much pressure on an already pressured situation,” Anderson said.

But landlords are tired of waiting.

For the past 15 years, Keith Kelley has managed a portfolio of some 50 rental properties, about half of them located in the West Central neighborhood where he and his family live.

Kelley, who served on the board of the nonprofit Spokane Housing Ventures for a decade, views his work as landlord as more than a job.

“My model focuses on providing high quality affordable housing to great people,” he said, rejecting “the assumption that landlords are in an adversarial relationship with tenants.”

“Vocationally, (housing) is something I feel called to provide.”

He believes the eviction moratorium has jeopardized his ability to do so.

Kelley said he’s endured the most grueling and dispiriting stretch of his career. The majority of his tenants have suffered right along with him, Kelley said. While he is required to abide by the terms of the leases he signed before the pandemic, his tenants are not.

That has allowed bad actors to misbehave without fear of eviction, leaving them the opportunity to not only miss rent payments, but make life unpleasant for their neighbors, Kelley said.

“Not only has it been extremely difficult managing in a situation where I can’t enforce contracts, I’ve been down about 30% on my rental income, which has had a really dramatic effect on my business,” he said. “But the worst part has been the impact on the communities that I manage, where they for a period of time have been made less safe because I haven’t been able to manage basic expectations.”

While he said he had never pursued an eviction in court prior to the pandemic, the moratorium has forced him to seek the removal of particularly problematic renters, often with frustrating results.

“During the moratorium, I had my first eviction,” he said.

Kelley is sympathetic to the challenges the pandemic has posed, but he argues the moratorium has only made things worse.

“I do not see virtue or value in maintaining environments where there is no accountability for bad behavior,” he said. “And what I have clearly seen and have many examples that I can provide is, under the auspices of that policy environment, conditions in my housing units have deteriorated on a very significant scale. So anecdotally, qualitatively, quantitatively, the net impact is really bad.”

Though he acknowledges “it would suck if these people were homeless,” he said there’s no shortage of people without housing who could take the place of those who violate the rules of their leases.

“So it’s not like by protecting these people we’re putting more people into housing,” he said. “That’s a false assumption.”

After Inslee revealed plans to again extend the moratorium last week, Kelley said he was reaching a breaking point.

“For the first time in my career as a landlord,” Kelley said, “I’m looking at the future thinking, ‘If things continue as they are, I’m not sure if I’m going to continue to doing this.’ ”

Spokesman-Review staffer Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report.