Tag: evictions

Why Does This Seattle Affordable Housing Provider Evict So Many Tenants?

Image result for lihi housing seattleThis story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Private landlords aren’t the only ones taking tenants to court for unpaid rent in Seattle. As “Losing Home” points out (the September 2018 report on eviction from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project), nonprofit housing providers are also evicting low-income renters, often for what appear to be very small amounts of rent, typically less than $1,000. Of all the nonprofit providers that turned up in the groups’ survey of evictions in Seattle in 2017, one—the Low Income Housing Institute—stood out, not only for initiating more evictions than any other provider, but for charging legal fees that often far exceeded the amount of rent a tenant owed, according to the report.

“[I]n cases where the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent, the median rent demanded was $551 and the median legal costs added to the tenant’s balance was $761.25,” the report states. (Tenants who lose eviction cases, including tenants who live in nonprofit-run housing, typically have to pay attorneys’ fees in addition to whatever they owe their landlords. These fees are not capped and are frequently more than the amount of unpaid rent a tenant owes.) “Given that LIHI specializes in providing affordable housing to low-income tenants, the imposition of an additional $761.25 to the tenant’s balance is substantial and likely to interfere with the tenant’s ability to find new housing in the future.” In 2017, the report notes, LIHI initiated 54 eviction cases in Seattle over unpaid rent, and ended up evicting all but eight of those tenants.

“When we look at the overall eviction rates, LIHI is a lot higher than all the other” nonprofits, says Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. “They evicted pretty much everyone they actually started an eviction against.” According to the data used in the report, the amount evicted tenants owed LIHI ranged from $49 to $1,250. “In all cases in which the Low Income Housing Institute sought back rent at or below $500, the tenant was evicted,” the report concludes.

LIHI director Sharon Lee says the organization “go[es] out of our way to help people by getting our social managers or caseworkers to help them find funds so that they can pay the rent, and we’re very generous when it comes to payment plans.” But, she adds, the organization has to draw lines. “Even if you are very sympathetic, if you let a whole group of people [go without paying rent], and then they tell their neighbors, ‘I’m not paying the rent,’ it will start affecting our ability to operate our housing. If we want to be developing more housing, we can’t say to our funders, ‘The budget is just out of whack and we need more subsidies.’”

It’s notable, however, that other nonprofit housing providers that serve formerly homeless clients, such as Pioneer Human Services, Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing, Services of Western Washington, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), rarely appear to evict tenants for failing to pay rent. According to court records, DESC evicted seven people in 2017, all for violations unrelated to rent, including violence against staff, dealing drugs and trafficking in stolen goods. “We try to come up with solutions to avoid people losing their housing,” says DESC director Daniel Malone. “We regard housing loss as a failure of ours, not just of the person.” Like Lee, Malone says that unpaid rent adds up and can eat into his organization’s bottom line; however, Malone says DESC is “not about to kick someone out on the streets [simply] because of unpaid rent.”

Lee contends that neither the raw data nor the eviction filings themselves reflect every reason for an eviction. “It could be nonpayment of rent, it could be breaking the lease, it could be violence, [or] in some cases, it could be housekeeping—if the unit fails a government inspection,” Lee says. “We also have people who intentionally do damage [or] who refuse to follow direction when it comes to pest control or bedbugs.” At the request of Seattle magazine, Lee looked at three specific cases, chosen at random from the 54 nonpayment cases listed in the report. For all three, Lee cited additional violations that she said contributed to LIHI’s decision to evict, including “violent and threatening behavior” toward other tenants, unauthorized guests and refusal to accept case management.

“We try not to evict people, because we don’t want to have people return to homelessness,” Lee says. “But we also know that some people, particularly young adults, may not work out in one place, and they may go somewhere else and have it be a good fit. We have housed people who have been evicted from DESC. It’s not like only one agency takes the ‘tough’ people.”

See my story on Seattle’s eviction court here.

As City Moves Away from Eviction Prevention, Report Highlights Inequities in Who Gets Evicted, and Why

A new report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project on who gets evicted in Seattle, and why, concludes that not only are women and people of color more likely to get evicted than white men, but that they often lose their homes over very small amounts of money—just a few hundred dollars in late rent, which is usually compounded by the addition of court and attorney’s fees. Among all the people evicted for failure to pay rent on time, more than half (52.3 percent) owed one month’s rent or less, and more than three-quarters (76.6 percent) owed less than $2,500 ($1,236 on average.) Because evicted tenants are generally required to pay additional court costs, attorneys’ fees, and other non-rent charges on top of the rent they owe, the median court judgment was $3,129.

Sarah Stewart, a longtime Seattle resident who has been living in her car since she was evicted this past March, said at a press conference today that she lost her apartment, in a low-income building, because her landlord miscalculated her income, which varies from month to month based on her ability to work. Stewart has a degenerative illness that causes pain and fatigue. Despite her family’s efforts to help her pay “the enormous amounts they demanded,” she eventually ended up in eviction court. “In the end,” she said, “the landlord had all the power, and not only were they able to evict me, but they also burdened me with over $2,000 in late fees, attorneys’ fees and non-rent fees. In my current situation, there is no way I will ever be able to pay that back.”

The report, “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle,” describes a system heavily weighted in favor of landlords and against tenants, particularly tenants who lack attorneys. The vast majority of people who get evicted (87.5 percent) in Seattle ended up homeless (a category that includes couch surfing or living in shelters in addition to unsheltered homelessness) for the exact reason you might expect: Once you’ve got an eviction on your record, it can be nearly impossible to find someone willing to rent to you. 

Eviction prevention programs in Seattle are virtually nonexistent—in sharp contrast to other cities such as New York, where the Bronx Housing Court, which offers a one-stop shop for rental assistance programs, has helped prevent evictions in 86 percent of cases. (Other cities also give tenants sore time to pay what they owe—in Seattle, the eviction process can begin as soon as you’re three days late on your rent—and offer more discretion to judges to work out deals between landlords and tenants that allow people to stay in their homes). This can be traced, in part, to a 2016 report that recommended diverting funds away from eviction prevention and into programs to help people who are already homeless; that report ended up being the basis of the city’s “Pathways Home” strategy for addressing homelessness.

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According to the report, “The Focus Strategies report acknowledged that ‘[t]raditional prevention generally targets households who have their own rental unit and have received an eviction notice,’ but then discouraged such an approach without providing any support for their recommendation. The Focus Strategies report claimed that ‘since most people do not become homeless straight from an eviction, it does not make sense to prioritize sheltering that group of people who are facing eviction; however, this overlooks the collateral consequences of eviction such as poor health, family instability, and higher financial strain on the shelter system.

The problem with ignoring people until they get evicted, Housing Justice Project attorney Ed Witter said today, is that it costs far more—between $15,000 and $17,000—to put someone up in a shelter for a year than it does to pay the $100 or $1,200 or $2,000 that separates them from eviction.  “We don’t help [people] until they’ve lost their housing, and we know this isn’t the most efficient way,” Witter said. A client who lived in low-income housing had just been evicted over $15.67 in late rent, Witter continued. “How did we get to the point that tenants are losing their housing over 15 dollars and 67 cents?”

Read the whole report, which includes detailed demographic data on who gets evicted and why as well as policy recommendations, here.