(The Center Square) — The future of Washington's eviction moratorium remains in uncharted territory as the August 1 deadline for its extension races ever closer for landlords and tenants.
Governor Jay Inslee first issued the moratorium on evictions in March before issuing a series of modifications leading up to its last extension .
The moratorium prohibits retaliation against any tenant who invokes rights and places a ban on assessing late fees or other charges. It also establishes a defense to any lawsuit for tenants if a landlord fails to offer a "reasonable" repayment plan.
The moratorium extends to residents of hotels or motels who reside for two weeks or longer.
Rent increases agreed upon for commercial property prior to the state’s emergency order in February are exempt.
An overwhelming number of people in Washington could be at risk of homelessness should the moratorium be lifted. In 2020, a U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse survey found that 18.7 percent of Washington residents reported housing insecurity. Washington’s rental market is tight at under 5 percent vacancy.
In the state’s most expensive region of King County, a household must make $90,000 after taxes to avoid rent burden—or more than 30 percent of income to rent.
Since 2000, the state has lost 91,000 affordable fair market rental units, 85 percent of which were lost since 2012.
Organizations like Compass Housing Alliance provide essential services and affordable housing for nearly 10,000 low-income earners and homeless individuals in the Puget Sound region in partnership with local congregations, governments, and service providers.
Despite the downturn in the nation’s economy and growing uncertainty in the housing market, Compass Housing Alliance Communications Manager Nathan Jackson said the organization is holding steady financially, relying both on its own emergency funds and community support.
"Members of our community really stepped up and realized that we’re going to see potential hits to our rental incomes due to COVID and due to people losing their jobs," Jackson said. "It was really important for folks to show their support for our guests because these are folks who need stability."
Jackson said CHA is willing to work with the state no matter if the moratorium is extended or not.
Evictions could only compound the deep racial disparities in the state’s housing market.
A 2018 housing study by University of Washington researchers found that one in six black adults in Pierce County were evicted over five years, while one in 11 black adults were evicted in King County.
One in 55 Washington adults were evicted in five years and only 8 percent of defendants had legal representation.
Under the moratorium, tenants may still be evicted if the property owner plans to occupy or sell the property with 60 days’ notice. The moratorium also permits evictions based on critical property damage, save for those known to the landlord before the COVID-19 pandemic.
A rental assistance program currently was created earlier in the year through the Department of Commerce using CARES Act funds. The department also offers assistance to landlords and to tenants facing eviction through the landlord mitigation program. For many landlords, there are no quick fixes.
For Washington Landlord Association President Rob Trickler, the moratorium may mean a wave of mass bankruptcies and many units may be leaving the market for good.
"When the governor modified the proclamation, I got flooded with landlords that are putting the units on the market," Trickler said. "So those are going to be owner-occupied, premium housing that’s going to be leaving the market. So you’re going to end up with higher rent because of lower inventory, and that’s not going to help tenants anymore than it’s going to help the landlords that are losing their properties."
According to Trickler, the state’s evictions rules have restricted landlords from deterring tenant misconduct and endangers renters as a whole.
For Mark Harmsworth, director of the Center for Small Business at the Washington Policy Center, landlords in the state need greater flexibility on what background checks they can perform.
"Each landlord should have the background check they want to run and really look at the tenants," Harmsworth said. "They want to make sure they’re good tenants to ensure that the tenant is not only good for the landlord, but good for the other neighbors."
In 2017, the City of Seattle passed the Fair Chance Housing law prohibiting landlords from denying applicants housing based on criminal history and advertising language excluding people with arrest records, conviction records, or criminal history. The legislation was upheld by the Washington Supreme Court last fall.
Seattle passed its own eviction ban which extends through to the fall on top of an additional eviction ban during winter months—effectively protecting tenants through March 2021, save for evictions issued by small landlords.
Rent control in Washington has been banned since 1981 and is up to state lawmakers to institute. To date, there are no limits on rent increases so as long as landlords comply with the appropriate notice period and have not issued the notice to discriminate or retaliate against a tenant.
Should the moratorium expire, groups like the Spokane Homeless Coalition worry that mass evictions could overwhelm already strained homeless shelter systems.
"Our concern is that the end of the moratorium could unleash an unprecedented wave of nouveau homeless, made up of people with housing who are unable to pay their rent and stand to lose their housing as a result of COVID-19," said Executive Producer Maurice Smith, a veteran of the coalition’s leadership team and group advisor.
Smith said that outreach workers he has communicated with have seen more displaced families with children sleeping in cars in local parks.
With no access to showers or sinks, hygiene can be impossible for the homeless, Smith stressed.
Significant racial disparities exist in Spokane County's homeless population as much as western Washington's, based on its latest report.
According to the report, Black Americans made up about 2 percent of Spokane County and accounted for 9 percent of its homeless population.
Native American or Alaska Natives, meanwhile, made up around 1.8 percent of the population and 8 percent of the homeless population.
White Americans made up over 89 percent of the county and 73 percent of its homeless population.
In Spokane, the homeless shelter system has been dropped from 805 shelter beds to only 634 shelter beds in light of a recorded homeless population of 1,309.
According to Smith, as much as 52 percent of the area’s known homeless are left without beds even on the best of nights at full capacity.
"This is not a future crisis," Smith said. "The future is here now."
According to Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, discussions on the state’s moratorium remain in limbo.