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May 8, 2021

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Washington’s statewide eviction moratorium expiration looms

Clark County families among those finding themselves in debt, unsure what to do next

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

Mychal Jones isn’t sure what he’ll do once the statewide freeze on evictions finally expires.

Jones rents a home in central Vancouver, where he lives with his mother and teenage daughter. When COVID-19 hit, he lost his second job at a Portland nightclub and with it around $26,000 in annual wages. He’d counted on that money to make rent. He now owes more than $14,000.

“I’m going to have to come up with something,” Jones said. “It’ll take 30 years to pay it off.”

Almost exactly a year ago, on March 18, Gov. Jay Inslee made it temporarily illegal for landlords to evict their tenants over an inability to pay. Since then, Inslee repeatedly has extended the moratorium, sometimes with just a few hours to spare.

Each time, Jones held his breath. Currently the eviction moratorium is scheduled to expire March 31.

“It was very stressful. You’re coming up to the deadline, and it’s like, ‘OK, what’s going to happen now?’ ” Jones said. “It’s going to have to come up. They can’t extend it forever.”

Jones said he doesn’t qualify for unemployment because he still has a full-time job – he works 40 hours a week as a maintenance lead at a local hospice. But pre-pandemic, he’d counted on his night job to make rent and cover his other expenses.

He’s grateful that the eviction freeze meant he and his family were able to remain in their home for the past year, Jones said, and he’s been in negotiations with his property management company to work out a payment plan. But he’s extremely worried about what happens when the moratorium finally does expire.

“While this moratorium has allowed us to stay in our homes it has destroyed us financially and I am left with no way to repair the damage that has been done,” Jones said. “Once it ends, my family and I are going to end up on the streets in one of the hundreds of tents you see on the side of the freeway.”

Jones’ story isn’t uncommon. When the pandemic struck, unemployment skyrocketed as businesses were forced to shut down to avoid spreading the virus. Clark County’s unemployment rate hit 14.6 percent in May. The county lost 19,700 jobs in the first two months of COVID-19 shutdowns.

Locally and nationwide, the result was predictable: people couldn’t cover their living expenses.

Even as employment rates start to recover, the gap persists among homeowners and renters alike.

Around a fifth of U.S. renters who responded to the most recent weekly Census Household Pulse Survey – 9.53 million households – reported that they’re behind on payments. Of those, 136,000 are in Washington.

Buying time for business

Two weeks after Inslee announced a statewide freeze on residential evictions, Vancouver followed suit for small businesses. The city implemented a policy on April 3 that protected any companies with fewer than 50 employees from eviction from their business location.

The moratorium acted as a much-needed stabilizing force during a time of unprecedented volatility, said Eric Sawyer, an area manager for employment agency BBSI.

Sawyer, who also volunteers as a business mentor for the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, said that the moratorium was “definitely a help” for businesses scrambling to respond to COVID-19. It was one less thing to worry about, especially as social and political unrest further upset the business climate.

“It was helpful to try to kind of provide a little bit of stable footing, for some of the owners so that they could at least know that in spite of the difficulty they were facing – if they’re selling widgets or they’re a restaurant or whatever – it provided some stable footing so they just focus on trying to survive the pandemic,” Sawyer said.

Avoiding homelessness

When Inslee first announced a freeze on evictions, he pointed to the intersection between homelessness and virus exposure.

“We just can’t have a big spike in homelessness together with this epidemic raging. That had to be our first priority right now,” Inslee said in a March 2020 press conference.

Indeed, it was likely lifesaving. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in January found policies that limited evictions reduced COVID-19 cases by 3.8 percent and deaths by 11 percent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionhomelessness exacerbates many of the health risks already posed by COVID-19. That many people without homes often have underlying medical conditions heightens the threat.

“The advice that’s given to people is that they’re supposed to be able to isolate at home,” said Amy Reynolds, deputy director of local homelessness nonprofit Share. “(What) if you have none of the tools that housed people are able to have?”

There’s the emotional and humanitarian cost of homelessness, but it’s also just good financial policy to keep people in their homes, Reynolds said. It’s much more expensive to find a new place to live than it is to stay in an existing place. There’s the move-in expenses and the damage deposit, but there’s also the additional complication of trying to find an apartment as a recently evicted tenant.

“For all these folks who would have had evictions on their records, trying to rehouse them would have been very difficult,” Reynolds said, “even somebody who had a perfect rental history.”

In conjunction with the Vancouver-based Council for the Homeless, Reynolds said, Share has been working to connect at-risk tenants with a direct rental assistance program. Over the summer, Clark County received a $5.5 million federal Eviction Rent Assistance Program grant. They’ve since dispersed emergency rental funds to 853 households.

However, those funds didn’t become available until several months into the pandemic, Reynolds said, and they still haven’t been able to reach everyone on the program’s waiting list.

In the meantime, the eviction moratorium bought a valuable resource: time.

“We received some funding through the county to help people stay in their homes, but we didn’t receive that money until maybe August,” Reynolds said. “Those people would have slipped into homelessness if the eviction moratorium hadn’t been in place.”

“The sheer volume of people … It’s made all the difference for an already overwhelmed system.”

As recently as February, the consensus among most lawmakers and lobbyists was that the statewide moratorium will finally expire at the end of the month.

Reynolds said that she hopes that’s not the case. She’s working to confirm the allocation that will trickle down from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package passed into law last week.

“I certainly hope not. With these additional dollars that just came into play, we won’t have time to get them out,” Reynolds said. “I am hoping that the governor extends it.”

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