Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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As eviction ban stretches on, so does uncertainty and rent debt

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If Washington’s extended ban on evictions expires at the end of March, 46-year-old Antonio Salazar could potentially lose his housing.

Salazar, a native of Mexico and 20-year resident of Redmond, worked as a chef until a few years ago when he suffered an accident that required spinal surgery. His only source of income had been workers’ compensation, which he said the state terminated a year ago, just before the pandemic set in.

His landlord had tried to evict him before the moratorium and a King County eviction prevention program brokered an agreement, covering six months of his $1,422 monthly rent in exchange for the owner forgiving three months that he owed last year, Salazar said. But the rental relief ended in November and he is still trying to get the Department of Labor and Industries to reopen his case.

The eviction moratorium bought Salazar time to try and get his life back together, but he still needs additional surgeries on his hip and knee and hasn’t been able to work.

“I don’t have anywhere to go if they evict me from here,” he said in Spanish.

Renters who have long lived on low incomes or who lost their jobs during the pandemic have found temporary relief by the third extension of the state eviction moratorium. But they are also staring down continually amassing debt, and homelessness providers and housing attorneys are scared that many of the estimated 175,000 people behind on rent in Washington state will be part of what some predict will be a “tsunami” of evictions once federal, state and local eviction bans disappear.

While the latest stimulus package passed by Congress extends the federal eviction ban to Jan. 31, and Washington’s eviction ban now stretches to March 31, no comprehensive plan has surfaced to tackle the full rent and consumer debt accumulated during COVID-19 that could follow some tenants for much of their lives.

A deal reached by Congress will provide $25 billion in rental assistance as part of a new stimulus package, but experts say it’s far from enough.

National Housing Law Project litigation director Eric Dunn estimates that $100 billion is needed to pay off back rent across the country.

“It’s a good start, but nowhere near what’s needed,” Dunn said. “What happens if there’s no further rent relief? It could be pretty destabilizing.”

Rental assistance programs also don’t take into account the expenses that some tenants have put on credit cards in order to keep making monthly payments, housing attorneys say.

To cover necessities like gasoline, car insurance, phone and electricity bills, Salazar said he sold a car and other household goods, created a GoFundMe account and has received help from local aid organizations, food banks and friends. Still, he said his credit-card bill has grown and he and his partner have sometimes gone hungry.

He hopes that the state Department of Labor and Industries will restore his payments and authorize additional surgeries so that he can recover and return to work. In the near term, though, he doesn’t have a plan for paying the rent he owes since December — and he knows others in similar circumstances.

“I’d like them to continue postponing it,” he said of lifting the moratorium.

Evictions might overwhelm systems

Many draw a straight line between the mounting debt and homelessness.

Roughly 60,000 to 140,000 people in the state of Washington are in danger of eviction or mortgage default, according to the Northwest Justice Project’s Scott Crain.

“And if you think about the fact that there’s 17,000 evictions filed in the state in a normal year, you could potentially see four times the level of evictions,” Crain said.

Even a few thousand extra evictions could overwhelm court systems, said Edmund Witter of the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project. In recent years, King County has seen more than 4,000 eviction cases per year.

King County has the country’s third-largest homeless population at 11,751 people living in shelters or outside as of an early 2020 estimate.

Adding thousands more could have an enormous impact, Witter said.

“How much more visible is the problem going to be?” Witter asked. “That will overwhelm any homelessness response system.”

Partial rental assistance

In August, Washington’s Department of Commerce announced that it would be distributing $100 million in CARES Act money for a new rent assistance program aimed at reducing back rent and paying future rent for some of the state’s most vulnerable people. The funds are set to expire in June 2021.

In King County, those funds had been disbursed to cover 6,000 households by the end of December, and are expected to assist 9,000 households by the time the program is complete.

Jay Hain owed their landlord $8,460 before the King County program helped them pay off their back rent.

For Hain, the problem started a few weeks after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee shut down nonessential businesses in March to stanch the spread of COVID-19. After five years at a Seattle ice cream joint, Hain was suddenly out of a job.

Since the shop reopened, Hain, 31, had been able to work 12 hours a week part-time. But it wasn’t enough to pay their $1,450 rent for a one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill.

“I’m extremely relieved,” Hain said. “It means that I’m not scraping by from week to week.”

The Department of Commerce, however, has been clear that existing rental assistance grants will not meet the overall need. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, an estimated 11.8% of renters in Washington are behind on rent as of December.

Penny Thomas, spokesperson for the state Department of Commerce, called the additional federal funds “critically needed and helpful” but “likely not enough to fill the gap of unpaid rents during a prolonged economic downturn.”

Some surveys suggest that the need is even higher than what the Census Bureau survey indicates. Brett Waller of landlord group Washington Multifamily Housing Association said that his organization’s survey of landlords shows a 14.5% rent delinquency or nonpayment rate across the state.

He is certain that federal rent assistance won’t be able to cover that debt.

“We know we need to continue to support housing providers and tenants financially moving forward,” Waller said in December. “The pandemic isn’t going to be over next month.”

Smaller landlords are also feeling the pressure and worried about their mortgage payments.

Robert Akhtar, a landlord of 18 apartment units in SeaTac, says he hasn’t made a mortgage payment in six months. He said half his tenants, many of whom came to him from programs for people experiencing or on the verge of homelessness, are behind on rent. He’s also been frustrated by a graffiti problem from a tenant he feels he hasn’t been able to address because of the eviction moratorium.

“There can’t be a blanket moratorium that ties our hands,” Akhtar said.

And any government assistance or rent payments he does get go straight to pay his insurance rather than the bank. Akhtar is worried he wouldn’t be able to get another plan if he loses his insurance.

Aaron Everett runs a small gun repair shop in rural Snohomish County and rents a home to a young mother with two children. His business was impacted by the shutdowns earlier this year, and he says his one tenant has lost both her part-time job as well as her freelance job doing accounting. Suspected fraud locked her out of the state’s unemployment program, and she’s been paying Everett what she can. He estimates she’s still about $10,000 behind.

Everett says he’s not going to kick a young mother out onto the street, but “it keeps it very hard to keep it together and still pay the mortgage on both houses.”

“You’re putting all of us landlords in a hell of a hole,” Everett said. “If they’re going to stop landlords from evicting people, then they need to be stepping up and pay some landlords’ bills.”

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said she will be working on a plan in the upcoming legislative session, beginning Jan. 11, to keep people housed and pay off back rent to landlords.

“I feel that because we had required landlords to maintain these tenancies that we also have an obligation to assist in the back rent that’s due,” Kuderer said. “And the utilities for that matter.”

Kuderer said that she’s hoping to introduce legislation to generate a dedicated source of revenue for rental assistance, potentially through eliminating the business and occupation tax exemption on large banks for first-time mortgages.

But she’s also hoping for more federal assistance.

“The reality is we need the federal government to be a partner here,” Kuderer said. “When you’re dealing with this kind of a crisis — a worldwide pandemic that has dramatically impacted the lives of so many Americans and Washingtonians — that’s when you expect government to step up and help.”

Trying mediation

Fearing that courts could be overwhelmed with eviction cases once moratoriums expire, the Washington Superior Court Judges Association and state Office of Civil Legal Aid developed a mediation program to try and resolve nonpayment eviction cases before they made their way through the courts.

The Eviction Resolution Program, which requires that landlords and tenants meet with a mediator before a case gets filed, now operates as a pilot program in King, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston and Clark counties.

But even with payment plans hashed out through mediation, some tenants are staring down a crippling level of debt, according to Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program legal director Jessi Anderson.

For the community she works with, having owed rent totaling thousands of dollars is “huge,” Anderson said.

The state’s current moratorium allows for flexible repayment plans, though housing attorneys say that at low repayment rates, tenants could still be dealing with debt for years and years to come.

“Even in the best of times when everybody’s working, it’s really difficult for tenants to swing an extra $100 a month when they’re behind,” Anderson said.

Mediation programs are also having trouble reaching all of the people who could be affected when the moratorium lifts, said Laurie Davenport of Tacomaprobono Community Lawyers.

Davenport stressed that the predicted wave of evictions will compound with an existing housing shortage and homelessness crisis.

“We’re just dealing with a crisis piled on top of a crisis,” Davenport said. “We were standing on the edge of the roof, already trying not to fall off, and this is pushing people over.”

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