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.

Morning Crank: From Homeless Camp to Graffiti Fence

1. Back in February, the Seattle Department of Transportation put up a temporary chain-link fence around the Ballard Bridge underpass at Leary Way Northwest in an attempt to deter homeless people from trying to take shelter under the bridge. Several weeks later, the fence was replaced by a more permanent structure, topped with metal spikes and standing some ten feet tall. The city argued that the $100,000 fence was necessary because if homeless people were allowed to sleep under the bridge, they might set the bridge on fire, causing it to collapse. Whatever the city’s motivation, the fence also answered the wishes of many neighborhood activists who took umbrage at having to look at homeless people through their car windows on their way home from work.

Now, they get to look at this:

And this:

And this:

About half the fencing is currently covered with graffiti, a problem made possible, in part, by the wall-like semipermanent fencing the city chose to enclose the area under the bridge. Asked when or whether the city plans to clean up the graffiti, SDOT spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said SDOT’s first priority is maintaining the safety of the bridge; in a followup, she said graffiti removal is the responsibility of Seattle Public Utilities, which plans to clean up the graffiti four times a year, at a cost of about $1,900 per cleanup. Given that the fences appear to be an appealing target for taggers, I asked Hobson if the city might step up its efforts to keep the fence tag-free; I’ll update this post if I get more information.

2. The Rental Housing Association of Washington—a group that advocates on behalf of landlords—filed a lawsuit today challenging the city’s “fair chance housing” law, which says that landlords can’t ask about potential tenants’ criminal history when deciding whether to rent to them. The lawsuit is one of several RHA has filed against the city in recent months; the group has also challenged laws capping the amount of move-in fees landlords can require tenants to pay and the so-called first-in-time law, which requires landlords to rent to the first qualified candidate. (A King County Superior Court judge  agreed with RHA, ruling in March that the first-in-time law violated landlords’ property rights). In its complaint, the group argues that the law infringes on landlords’ “constitutionally protected right to choose whom they will house and work within these often lengthy and interpersonal landlord-tenant relationships. The inability to access valuable information about potential tenants increases various risks faced by plaintiffs when renting their property.”

At a press conference Tuesday morning, RHA president William Shadbolt argued that the city’s tenant protection ordinances make the housing affordability crisis worse. “Making criminals a protected class and other ordinances like it makes the city council directly responsible for increasing people’s rent,” he said. Shadbolt suggested that the city should instead adopt a law that would give renters with criminal records (of any kind) the option of going before an “impartial panel” to get a “restoration of opportunity” certificate that could allow them to rent from some “willing small landlord[s].”  Several landlords said they had drastically increased their screening criteria—requiring higher income or credit scores, for example—in an attempt to prevent “the criminals” from qualifying to rent from them.

In reality, criminal background checks allow landlords to screen out people who have merely been arrested or accused, but found not guilty, of committing a crime—one reason that criminal background checks disproportionately impact people of color, who are far more likely to be targeted, detained, and charged for crimes they did not commit. (Overall, roughly one in three Seattle residents has some kind of criminal history). On the other end of the spectrum, people who do commit crimes and serve their time have a much easier time reintegrating into their communities if they have stable housing.  And of course, people with stable housing are much less likely to commit crimes that stem from poverty, isolation, lack of services, and economic desperation.

City council member Lisa Herbold, who sponsored the fair-chance legislation, says, “One of the fundamental tenets of our justice system is that only a court of law can punish someone accused of a crime.  Blocking people from accessing stable housing based upon their criminal background violates this fundamental tenet of our justice system and is inconsistent with the rule of law.” Herbold also disputes the idea that renting to people with criminal backgrounds puts landlords and tenants without criminal history at rick. “Blocking people from accessing stable housing is a recipe for recidivism and less safety for our communities,” she says. “With housing, a person is seven times less likely to reenter the criminal justice system.  I would expect anyone in favor of a safer Seattle to support this law.”

3. A report by BERK Consulting on Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program, which provides four $25 vouchers to every Seattle resident to contribute to the local candidates of their choice, concludes that while more people contributed to candidates in last year’s elections compared to previous years, the people who used democracy vouchers skewed whiter, wealthier, and older than the city as a whole. The report also found that while more candidates decided to run last year, only a handful managed to qualify for vouchers, and made recommendations for improving the system and increasing access to vouchers in the future.
A few highlights of the 51-page report:
• Democracy vouchers did little to prevent “big money” from dominating Seattle politics, as total spending in city council campaigns increased 60 percent between 2015 and 2017, as candidates asked to be released from campaign spending limits when their opponents’ spending, plus spending by outside groups on their behalf, exceeded the limits set by the legislation that established the voucher program. Independent expenditures, which the city does not have the authority to limit, jumped 55 percent over the same two-year period, leading the consultants to conclude that “the role of big money in Seattle elections persists.”
• Because candidates can be released from spending limits if their opponent’s total contributions (including both direct contributions and independent expenditures) exceeded those limits, the report found, the program may unfairly penalize candidates who have no say over whether an outside group does an independent expenditure on their behalf. Conversely, the trigger for releasing campaigns from spending limits might create a perverse incentive for candidates to encourage or solicit small IEs against their opponents in order to boost their combined campaign spending above the threshold and triggering a release from spending limits. “
• For candidates, the biggest barrier to participating in the democracy voucher program was the difficulty of getting signatures and contributions of at least $10 from 400 registered voters and verifying their information with the city, with the result that “most candidates did not receive any public funding, or qualified to receive public funding too late in the election cycle to make a difference.” To fix that problem in the future (and, presumably, to help prevent democracy voucher fraud in future elections), the consultants recommend “significantly streamlining the verification process – particularly when it comes to qualifying contributions,” by allowing people to verify their identities electronically when they make their contributions.
BERK will present its report to the Ethics and Elections Commission on the 40th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower today at 4.

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