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Advocates, landlords at odds over some tenant protections

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: October 23, 2017, 6:05am
4 Photos
Volunteer attorney Ben Moody gives a client legal advice during a meeting at the Clark County Courthouse on Friday. Moody typically volunteers every Friday giving advice to people facing evictions. Ariane Kunze/The Columbian
Volunteer attorney Ben Moody gives a client legal advice during a meeting at the Clark County Courthouse on Friday. Moody typically volunteers every Friday giving advice to people facing evictions. Ariane Kunze/The Columbian Photo Gallery

A law in Washington that became effective in June 2016 allows tenants to seek an order of limited dissemination, which basically stops screening agencies from showing a prior eviction or using that past to calculate a rental score.

“It doesn’t actually change the public record,” attorney Ben Moody said. “If someone went through court filings they could find it, but no landlord does that.”

It’s rare that somebody’s circumstances would qualify them for the order, and even rarer that it’s actually used. The law is still new, so not a lot of people are aware of it. Kate Budd, the deputy director at the Council for the Homeless, said it’s so poorly known that orders of limited dissemination are not part of the curriculum of the local Rent Well program, a 15-hour class geared toward people who have barriers to housing, which covers key information and responsibilities related to being a stable tenant.

Moody moved down from Seattle after law school and began volunteering at the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program’s Housing Justice Project to help out and get some experiencing practicing law. He’s since carved a niche, helping tenants obtain orders of limited dissemination.

There are a few ways people can get an order of limited dissemination. If they win an eviction case, they can get one. If the judge finds the eviction lawsuit has no basis in fact or law, the tenant could get one. Another more nebulous reason is for “other good cause,” where a tenant proves their “circumstances outweighs a future landlord’s interest in learning about a prior eviction record,” according to the Washington Multifamily Housing Association. In rare cases, tenancy may be reinstated and all the costs paid within five days. A tenant and landlord could agree to a payment plan to keep them in the unit.

In Moody’s first case where the order was used, the manager of a complex had filed an unlawful-detainer lawsuit against a tenant. That same day, the manager was fired and the case was voluntarily dismissed. However, when the tenant tried to secure a new rental, he discovered he had an eviction record.

“The judge reviewed it, signed it and cleaned up their record,” Moody said.

The court does not keep statistics on how many orders of limited dissemination are issued. Moody estimated he sends one out every few weeks.

A landlord’s perspective

Roger Silver, the information officer of the Clark County Rental Association, considers the criteria for orders of limited dissemination too broad.

“This is an awful law,” said Silver, who owns a three-plex and a house that are rented.

He imagines that someday Vancouver’s renter protections will be contested, maybe even thrown out. All these new tenant protections — whether we’re talking about Vancouver’s efforts or Seattle’s new laws that reach even further, preventing landlords from evicting without cause and eliminating nearly all uses of criminal history as part of a background screening — undermine landlords’ rights, Silver said. He’s worried that as people push for more protections, local landlords may someday not be able to use someone’s eviction history to choose not to rent to them.

Legal assistance for low-income tenants

Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program: 360-695-5313.

Northwest Justice Project’s CLEAR Hotline: 1-888-201-1014.

Tenants Union of Washington State’s Tenants Rights Hotline: 206-723-0500.

“Fair housing wants these people, even if they don’t deserve it, to find a place to live,” Silver said.

Budd, though, said Vancouver’s tenant protections that came into effect two years ago give people a more realistic amount of time to move and that impacts the number of evictions.

“It makes a big difference,” she said. She added, “We do in our community have some very empathetic landlords.”

Often, landlords are willing to be patient and work with tenants if there’s clear communication. Generally, landlords don’t use evictions if they can help it, she said.

However, some tenants take advantage of landlords and the system, Silver said. The eviction process can be timely, and all the while the tenant remains in the unit not paying rent, he said. (Lockouts are illegal.)

The sheriff’s office used to have a week to carry out the writ of restitution, but now there is more time. Landlords may complete their own evictions without the sheriff, but it can be a nebulous process, and there’s no room for error, Silver said.

Most evictions have cause and are due to people not paying rent. A record of that serves a legitimate purpose. The bottom line, Silver said, is that landlords want to have tenants in their units and they want those tenants to pay rent.