Afternoon Crank: Eviction Law More Sweeping Than Previously Reported; Sound Transit Says No Signature Gathering in Federal Way

1. The new state law that creates new protections for tenants at risk of losing their homes to eviction, sponsored by Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), goes even further than has been previously reported, including by me. That’s thanks to a little-noticed provision that expands a tenant’s ability to stop an eviction proceeding against her at any point up until five days after a court has issued a judgment in a landlord’s favor—a point that far fewer tenants should ever have to reach, thanks to provisions that give tenants ample opportunities to pay their back rent before a landlord takes an eviction case to court, before the case goes to trial, and even after a judge rules against the tenant.

Here’s what makes the legislation so sweeping. As I reported earlier this week, it extends the period in which tenants can pay overdue rent without facing eviction—and without having to pay any late fees, notice fees, or other one-time charges— from three days to 14. It also extends a tenant’s right to pay their rent along a fee of up to $75 until any point after that 14-day period, up to the point when their landlord files a case against them in King County Superior Court. After a landlord files a case, the tenant still has the opportunity to avoid eviction by paying the landlord back rent, the $75 fee, and any court costs incurred up until that point (which are often elevated by lawyers’ fees for preparing files, showing up in court, and other services that can be avoided if a landlord and tenant reach a settlement). Finally, if the landlord wins the case, the tenant still has up to five days to pay them back, including court costs, before being evicted.

It’s hard to overstate how dramatic the impact of this change could be. Under the current system, none of that happens. Instead, tenants can be kicked out of their homes for failing to pay rent on the fourth day it is late, and there is usually no recourse for a tenant once their landlord has filed an eviction case against them. In fact, as I’ve reported, the judges who hear eviction cases currently have virtually no discretion to set up payment plans or consider mitigating circumstances, such as a tenant who was in the hospital and unable to pay, or who suffered a one-time financial setback but has the money in hand. The new law gives judges more discretion. It also ensures that tenants who need more time to scrape their rent together—by, for example, accessing funds provided through programs like Solid Ground rental assistance program or Home Base, which provides flexible funds for people who need help with back rent—have ample opportunities to do so. For the first time in many years, the scales have tipped back—dramatically—in favor of tenants.

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2. Washington Community Action Network—one of the organizations behind a Seattle Women’s Commission report on evictions in King County, “Losing Home,” that helped lead to the statewide reforms—is trying to gather 10,000 signatures to get an initiative that would provide new protections for tenants on the ballot in Federal Way. If Sound Transit has its way, none of those signatures will be collected at the Federal Way Transit Center, where security guards have told volunteers with the group that they can’t petition near station platforms—that is, in the area where people congregate as they get on and off the bus.

“Obviously, one of the best places to [gather signatures] is going to be the Federal Way Transit Center,” says Xochitl Maykovich, Washington CAN’s political director. “I get that they have concerns around safety and not harassing people, but, I’m sorry, two organizers asking, ‘Hey, do you want to help keep people housed?’—how is that preventing people from getting on the bus?”

On May1, Washington CAN wrote a letter to Sound Transit director Peter Rogoff objecting to the policy, and noting that the “free speech areas” to which their organizers were directed are far away from pedestrian traffic. “The security officer continued to vigilantly watch the two women as if though their presence engaging transit riders with a smile was a potential threat to the station.,” the letter says. “The women found his behavior unnecessarily intimidating and decided it was best to leave the station.”

Sound Transit’s security director, Ken Cummins, responded by sending Maykovich a copy of Sound Transit’s free-speech policy, which says that the agency “may designate appropriate areas at each facility for public communication activities” and can limit the number of people it allows to engage in such activities. “Signature gathering is not authorized on bus or train platforms or within 15 feet of entrances, stairwells, elevators, escalators, ticket vending machines or within 15 feet of the trackway,” Cummins wrote. “Signature gathers may not use any tables or chairs in their activity and signature gathers may not block a person’s access to transit in any manner.” (Washington CAN’s two signature gatherers did not have tables or chairs).

After several followup letters to Sound Transit received no response, Maykovich wrote, “I take the lack of any response as meaning that I need to involve our attorney,” Maykovich wrote. “I will also note that I am incredibly disappointed in the lack of dialogue on this issue, especially given that this is a publicly run institution that is definitely getting a good chunk of my tax dollars.”

Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham confirmed that the agency “did receive the letter from Washington Community Action Network, and our legal counsel is currently reviewing it, as well as the policy.”
Maykovich says her organization has not faced similar pushback when collecting signatures at RapidRide bus station platforms in the past, despite Metro’s similar free-speech policy.
The Federal Way initiative would institute a Good Cause Eviction Ordinance, similar to Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction law, in the city, prohibiting arbitrary evictions and limiting the reasons for which a landlord can terminate a tenant’s lease. In Federal Way, about 29 percent of the households that sought eviction prevention assistance from the Housing Justice Project were single women with children, compared to just 10 percent in Seattle.

What Eviction Reform Means for You

This piece originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Last month, the Washington state legislature passed a sweeping eviction reform bill that gives tenants more time to pay rent before they can be evicted; gives judges new discretion when deciding whether to give tenants more time to pay or how much to penalize evicted tenants financially; and creates new financial incentives for landlords to rent to tenants using financial subsidies.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Macri, was a response to the problems outlined in a report by the Seattle Women’s Commission, “Losing Home,” earlier this year. That report revealed that tenants in Seattle are frequently evicted for failing to pay extremely small amounts of rent (as little as a few dollars), and that the county superior court judges—who determine whether tenants will be evicted—have little discretion to consider mitigating factors (like a one-time medical emergency) that cause people to fall temporarily behind on their rent. In a story about King County’s eviction court for the February 2019 print edition of Seattle magazine, one woman described receiving an eviction notice while in the hospital for late-stage kidney disease. Another case, described by Housing Justice Project attorney Edmund Witter, involved a man who was hospitalized for a degenerative spinal disease; the landlord refused to allow HJP to pay his rent because HJP was not the tenant.

The legislation makes several statewide reforms:

  • It increases the number of days a tenant has to pay his or her rent once a landlord puts a “pay or vacate” notice on their door from 3 days to 14.
  • It gives judges the ability to consider mitigating circumstances when a tenant falls behind on their rent, such as unanticipated one-time expenses, a history of timely payments, and hardship to the tenant if they’re evicted. This provision also allows tenants to negotiate payment plans with landlords.
  • It requires landlords to put any payments a tenant does make toward rent first, rather than toward fees the landlord has charged the tenant for paying late. The “Losing Home” report found that late fees often added hundreds of dollars to tenants’ arrears, often outstripping the original amount they owed.
  • It limits the amount of attorneys’ fees judges can award to landlords, which were previously unlimited.
  • It expands an existing program that reimburses landlords for damages caused by tenants using rent subsidies. If a judge uses his or her new discretion to forgive rent or give a tenant more time to pay, and the reason is that the tenant is low-income or experiencing hardship, a landlord can now petition the Department of Commerce for reimbursement for that loss.
  • And it requires that 14-day eviction notices be written in simple language (and offered online in 10 different languages) so that tenants understand what is happening and how to respond.

The legislation is now on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk, and will become law (if Inslee doesn’t get around to signing it) on May 22.