Preparations are underway locally as Gov. Jay Inslee’s pandemic protections for renters are set to expire at the end of the month.
Landlords and their representatives are eager to return to some level of normalcy, while advocates for tenants are pressing local and state leaders to extend protections at least until rental assistance funds are entirely distributed.
Meanwhile, the future remains uncertain as many await action by the Spokane Superior Court to clear the way for an unknown number of evictions.
Inslee first implemented a moratorium on evictions in the early days of the pandemic, followed by a “bridge” proclamation in June that was meant to buy time for rental assistance distribution and serve as a transition into protections approved by the state Legislature earlier this year – including an eviction resolution program and a right-to-counsel program.
The bridge was set to expire at the end of September, but Inslee extended it for an additional month.
Spokane County is ahead of the curve in implementing an eviction resolution program, as it was one of a handful of counties to pilot the program last year, providing tenants and landlords an opportunity to reach an agreement outside of court.
The city of Spokane and Spokane County both have active rental assistance programs.
Preparations have also been made to ensure the right to an attorney for low-income people facing eviction.
The Northwest Justice Project and the Spokane County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Program have been tapped to hire attorneys to ensure indigent people are represented. Both organizations say they’ve hired attorneys and are ready to represent clients facing eviction.
The last piece of the puzzle is an order from Spokane County Superior Court that functionally implements the program and explains how attorneys will be appointed. Facing a backlog, the court issued an order in August delaying evictions at least until Inslee’s moratorium is lifted.
Many expect the court to issue an updated order in the coming days.
Even if right-to-counsel and eviction resolution programs are in place, the Tenants Union of Washington State believes it would be wrong to start evictions until rental assistance funds are exhausted.
“Right to counsel isn’t going to help if we don’t have the rental assistance piece in … if one piece is missing, then it all kind of falls apart,” said Terri Anderson, Spokane director for the Tenants Union of Washington.
Anderson wrote a letter to local leaders this week imploring them to take action similar to Seattle, where Mayor Jenny Durkan extended an eviction moratorium into January.
“They’re actually recognizing the low delivery of rental assistance and actually doing something about it,” Anderson said.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said he believes nobody should be evicted for nonpayment of rent as long as they’ve at least applied for rental assistance, “but I think it would take five votes on council to make that a city law, and I don’t have a sense that we have the votes.”
Beggs has also contemplated requiring any landlord who accepts rental assistance to limit rent increases to the rate of inflation. Again, he does not believe he has enough support on the City Council.
Resolution program, right to counsel
When evictions do resume, there will be more steps in the process than before the pandemic.
For a tenant with overdue rent, landlords must first provide tenants with a reasonable repayment plan. If the tenant does not respond in 14 days, the landlord can serve them with an eviction resolution pilot program notice, which serves as an offer to have a third party mediate and come to a resolution.
If the tenant does not respond or the parties cannot agree, the landlord can move forward with an eviction filing.
Right-to-counsel programs were funded by the state Legislature earlier this year to support its reforms.
Prior to the state reform, lawyers would occasionally take on clients pro bono, but only as they were available.
“This is totally different – this is all the lawyers who do this are going to do,” said Scott Crain, statewide advocacy counsel for the Northwest Justice Project.
Traditionally, a majority of tenants facing eviction are not represented by an attorney. Research suggests that makes them less likely to succeed in court. A review of the city of Cleveland’s right-to-counsel program, which launched last year, found 93% of represented clients looking to avoid eviction or a forced move were successful.
“When people aren’t represented, they aren’t able to figure out what’s relevant and what (they) need to tell the court about,” Crain said.
The Spokane County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Program has long been the county’s designated local housing justice project. But under the old system, lawyers who represented clients facing eviction didn’t get paid for it, according to Spokane County Bar Association Executive Director Julie Griffith.
“They would just show up in court, and you had maybe 10 minutes to consult with tenants to figure out a resolution, and you would never see the tenant again,” Griffith said.
Now, the Bar Association has two full-time attorneys funded by the Office of Civil Legal Aid who will likely have weeks – not minutes – to consult with a client. Ideally, that will often mean coming to a resolution before a judge ever issues a decision.
“It’s very different when you have time on your side, expertise and everybody’s on the same page when it comes to what needs to happen,” Griffith said.