Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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In Our View: Legislature must address specter of evictions

The Columbian
Published:

Eventually, the axiom says, the rent comes due.

For millions of renters across the country, that truism has hovered over them throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Business shutdowns have left many people without work and many others working fewer hours — disproportionately impacting people in rental housing. That makes it difficult to pay the rent, which makes it difficult for landlords to pay their mortgage.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee last month extended a moratorium on evictions for failure to pay until the end of March. The moratorium, initially enacted shortly after last year’s COVID-19 breakout, has been extended three times.

At the national level, a federal moratorium has been extended through January as part of a $900 billion coronavirus relief bill passed before Christmas.

But moratoriums are only temporary respites while debt continues to mount. Legislators must provide some assurance for stressed renters and landlords and help the state avoid the calamity of mass evictions in the coming months.

In Clark County, the federal CARES Act passed last year provided several rounds of assistance. The third round, announced in September, delivered about $2.3 million locally, with the city of Vancouver and the county receiving roughly equal amounts.

Many renters, however, have been skipping payments or dipping into savings to keep a roof over their heads. An estimated 171,000 Washington renters are behind on payments. That resonates in Vancouver; according to internet listing service RENTCafe, more than half the city’s residents now are renters.

“We know a lot of people are falling behind,” Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima, told the Yakima Herald-Republic prior to the start of this year’s legislative session. “If you want to cause an economic crisis, you create this big default on mortgage payments.”

Inslee’s proposed budget includes $17 million for foreclosure relief when the moratorium lapses. Some relief is necessary; Moody’s Analytics estimates that $70 billion was owed nationally by renters at the end of 2020.

That impacts mom-and-pop landlords who need to pay their own bills. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 41 percent of the nation’s rental units are owned by individual landlords, rather than corporations.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, the supply of affordable units dwindled as small-time landlords sold to investors, who turned them into units that often were out of reach for low- and middle-income renters. That has helped fuel a lingering homelessness crisis.

Without adequate assistance from the state and federal government, the same dynamic could play out following the pandemic — leading to consequences that last for years or decades.

Keeping people housed and landlords solvent is one of the keys to positioning the economy for a relatively quick recovery, and must be a priority for the Legislature. That should include dedicated funding for an issue that is likely to linger. Waiting for federal assistance is neither efficient nor reassuring, leaving renters and landlords grasping for security.

Even before the pandemic, the United States had an epidemic of evictions and a shortage of affordable housing. According to The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, 1 in 40 U.S. renters have been evicted at some point; in France, it is 1 in 25,000.

Lawmakers must work to stem a looming crisis. Because as renters understand, the rent eventually comes due.

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