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City of Spokane adopts law protecting tenants from eviction while awaiting rental assistance

Jan. 10, 2022 Updated Mon., Jan. 10, 2022 at 9:36 p.m.

Spokane City Hall.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane City Hall. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A new city law aims to protect tenants actively seeking rental assistance from eviction.

The Spokane City Council narrowly approved an ordinance on Monday that bars landlords from seeking to evict a tenant who is waiting to hear back on a rental assistance application.

The law’s sponsor, City Council President Breean Beggs, stripped out provisions from a previous draft that would have limited rent increases for any landlord who accepts rental assistance.

Still, the watered -down bill garnered significant opposition from landlords and property owners.

It passed as an emergency ordinance with the necessary five of seven votes.

“I can not sit here and think about people losing their apartments, losing their safe space because there is money on its way and hasn’t gotten there yet,” Stratton said.

The protections for tenants seeking rental assistance will remain in place through 2022.

Despite the opposition, Beggs described the bill as “narrow.” It applies only to tenants who have failed to pay rent, not those who have violated their lease in ways such as damaging property.

“This is designed to not be a burden on landlords, but people will have their own opinions on it,” Beggs said.

While he credited the bill with being brought forward with “righteous intent,” Councilman Michael Cathcart said “I don’t know that it’s actually going to do what we’re intending for it to do.” He joined Councilman Jonathan Bingle in voting against it.

The law was passed as the city drains its pools of rental assistance funding with no clear indications that more is on the way from the state or federal government.

To date, the city has distributed about 68%, or $14.7 million of $21.5 million, in rental assistance, but nearly 100% is already committed, according to city officials.

The city’s rental assistance webpage warns applicants that, after Jan. 5, “there may not be sufficient funds to fill your request.”

“That in some ways is a massively good news story,” Eric Finch, city’s interim director of Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services, told the council on Monday. “The challenge though, is that as a jurisdiction we might be having to tell people that we’re out of funds earlier than other jurisdictions are.”

Cathcart asked Beggs what happens when the city’s rental assistance funds run out, and if a tenant’s application would be considered “pending” in perpetuity once the existing tranches are drained.

There “actually has to be money” in the rental assistance program for the law to apply, Beggs said.

The bill’s opponents argued that the law was unnecessary given tenant protections adopted by the state Legislature last year.

They also argued the bill could inadvertently cut off access to rental assistance and mediation for tenants.

The city law prohibits landlords from serving a notice to pay back rent or vacate the property to tenants who’ve applied for rental assistance “without first providing the tenant with written notice of the funding resources and programs established” in state law.

The 14-day pay-or-vacate notice starts the clock on the eviction process. It directs tenants to an eviction resolution program and dispute resolution center, through which a tenant can negotiate a repayment plan with the landlord or be connected to rental assistance.

Under state law adopted by the Legislature last year, tenants have the right to participate in mediation with their landlord through an eviction resolution program before the landlord can file for eviction. A landlord must offer a reasonable repayment plan that amounts to no more than one-third of the monthly rent during the period missed.

Several landlord advocates warned that the city law would interfere with the existing dispute resolution process, but the final version of the city law included a paragraph explicitly allowing landlords to notify tenants of unpaid rent. The law also allows landlords to “provide information to tenants regarding financial resources, including coordinating with tenants in applying for rent assistance,” and “provide tenants with information on how to engage with them in discussions regarding reasonable repayment plans.”

Beggs said the ordinance was written in a way to ensure the tenant participates in the mediation process.

“You do have to participate in the conversation if you’re a tenant,” Beggs assured his council colleagues.

Jim Henderson, a lobbyist for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, argued Beggs’ ordinance is trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist and that people aren’t being evicted while waiting on a rental assistance check. He argued that the city is asking landlords to bear the burden of any delays in distributing rental assistance.

“This is unfair and it just frankly creates more of a cost to the entire system,” Henderson said.

Bob Hernon, who bought a triplex in north Spokane last year, told the council Monday night that he has invested significantly in his property. He said he does not have the resources of a hedge fund and can not wait indefinitely while a tenant applies for rental assistance.

Terri Anderson, Spokane director for the Tenants Union of Washington, said the ordinance would buy time for her organization to educate tenants on the new rights afforded to them under state law. Many leave their homes without knowledge of the resources available to them, Anderson said.

“Tenants lose their rights without even knowing they have them,” Anderson said.

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