The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday rejected claims by landlords that Gov. Jay Inslee abused his power when he created a temporary ban on evictions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court sided with the state and upheld the governor’s power to instate eviction moratoriums in the event of emergencies.
In March 2020, Inslee declared a statewide moratorium on evictions. That order – which lasted a year and change – prohibited landlords from evicting tenants for past-due rent accrued during the pandemic. Landlords argued the moratorium violated state law and the constitution.
The court’s decision was a rare win in the eyes of renters’ rights activists during a time when housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable and scarce across the state.
“The moratorium saved lives,” Terri Anderson, policy director for the Tenants Union of Washington State, said in a phone interview. “A lot of tenant protections get challenged in courts, and I’m always very happy when the courts rule to uphold them.”
In the city of Spokane, roughly 50% of housed residents are renters. In less urban areas of Spokane County, that number drops to around 40%. Spokane County was one of the counties hit hardest in terms of housing during the depths of the pandemic, Anderson said, because none of the original federal pandemic relief dollars was allocated for rental assistance.
Under state law, the governor has authority to make emergency rules “in the event of disaster beyond local control.”
Plaintiffs in Thursday’s lawsuit claimed Inslee’s eviction moratorium did not line up with the powers outlined in the law.
This legal battle over the moratorium started in February 2022 when a pair of landlords partnered with the Washington Landlord Association to file suit against Inslee and the state in Lewis County Superior Court. The plaintiffs claimed Inslee acted outside of his “emergency powers” outlined in the state’s emergency laws when he put the moratorium in place. The landlord group also argued that the temporary halt on evictions was unconstitutional, because it blocked their access to the court system.
The lawsuit was moved to Thurston County Superior Court (where Inslee’s office is), and a trial court dismissed the case. It made its way up to the Supreme Court on appeals.
In its 12-page ruling, the court wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic would hinder people’s ability to pay rent, and mass evictions would increase the spread of the deadly virus by forcing people into courthouses and displacing them into the homes of friends and family, shelters or encampments.
“It was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would cause significant and widespread financial hardship, particularly on those with low and moderate incomes,” the ruling reads.
More than 1.6 million people in the state filed unemployment claims between March and December of 2020. That’s about 1 in 5 Washingtonians.
Without the eviction moratorium, nearly 800,000 people in Washington would have been evicted from their homes during the pandemic, according to the court. The moratorium also reportedly saved 620 lives and another 59,000 people from contracting the deadly COVID-19 virus, the ruling said.
If not for the moratorium, data suggests a disproportionate amount of women and renters who are Black, Indigenous and people of color would have faced eviction.
Women face higher eviction rates in the state, a study done by the University of Washington in 2020 found. In Washington’s two most populated counties, eviction rates among Black and Latino adults are nearly seven times higher than they are for white adults.
If they had won the legal battle, the plaintiffs hoped the state would cut checks to landlords who lost out on rental income during the moratorium, said Richard Stephens, attorney for the landlords.
“If we had won, we probably would have gone down to the trial court to figure out how much money that is,” Stephens said in a phone interview. “We probably would have been able to agree and settle that amount.”
The attorney said in a written statement Thursday that his clients were “deeply disappointed” with the court’s decision.
“The Court has approved the Governor’s decision to prevent them from seeking any relief against tenants who had a steady income during the pandemic – tenants who chose not to pay solely because the Governor told them they didn’t have to,” Stephens wrote. “The decision is a significant undercutting of individual rights.”
Justices Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens and Helen Whitener joined in the dissenting opinion.
“The governor lacked authority to prohibit landlords from seeking the remedy of eviction as permitted by statute,” reads the dissent.
Justices Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Debra Stephens and Mary Yu signed the majority opinion.
“The obligation to pay rent was never waived or suspended,” the court wrote, “regardless of whether some tenants took advantage of the fact they would not be immediately evicted if they stopped paying.”
Inslee’s office issued a brief statement in response to Thursday’s ruling.
“We appreciate the justices’ careful consideration of this matter,” spokesperson Mike Faulk wrote in an email. “The eviction moratorium was an important piece of our life-saving efforts during the worst of the pandemic.”
Spokane County has seen an uptick in evictions in September, Anderson said. Rising housing prices are forcing people out onto the streets. Anderson said she hopes to see state lawmakers pass a rent stabilization bill in the 2023 legislative session, capping rent increases at 7%.
“We sure would like to see more protection against these rent increases,” Anderson said. “That right now is probably getting tenants even more than evictions. They can’t afford the rent increases. They only get a 60-day notice, and they move.”
Renters who are served eviction notices are encouraged to call the Tenants Union of Washington State hotline at (206) 723-0500, Anderson said.