Washington’s eviction moratorium has been a lifeline for many renters throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But for the good of landlords and as a step toward normalizing the economy, Gov. Jay Inslee should allow the moratorium to expire as scheduled at the end of October.
Such a move is necessary, although it will be difficult for thousands of renters throughout the state. According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey last month, approximately 57,000 households in Washington are not paying rent, and more than 147,000 have “no confidence” they can pay the next rent bill. The survey found that nearly 50,000 households say it is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” they would be evicted in the next two months.
That, indeed, is cause for concern. At a time when homelessness is an issue for cities throughout the Northwest, exacerbating the crisis is not ideal. “The need that is out there is clearly real, and people are in crisis,” Michael Torres, Clark County’s community services program manager, told The Columbian.
We can empathize with that need. But landlords also have needs, particularly mom-and-pop operators who form a large percentage of landlords and are dependent on rental income.
Since the beginning of the pandemic some 19 months ago, Washington has had a moratorium on evictions for failure to pay rent. The federal government instituted a similar ban, which has since expired, and most states adopted their own protections for renters. Troublesome renters could still be evicted for criminal activity or nefarious behavior.
Meanwhile, promised relief has been slow to arrive. Of $1.1 billion in available rental assistance through state and federal funds, $220 million had been spent through the end of July, according to the state Department of Commerce. Just 10 of the state’s 39 counties had spent more than one-quarter of available funds, and 13 counties had spent less than 10 percent.
In late September, Inslee extended the moratorium by one month. “This brief extension will help ensure that no one is evicted while large amounts of rental assistance funding is still available but unused,” he said. “Money is available and it needs to get distributed as soon as possible. We encourage local governments to redouble their efforts.”
We echo that encouragement, but we also recognize the burden placed on landlords.
The situation adds to a scenario that has helped create the homeless crisis. Nationally, in 2000, individuals owned two-thirds of apartment properties with five to 24 units; that share fell to 40 percent by 2015, with the economic landscape becoming untenable for many small landlords. A Harvard University study found that corporate landlords have raised rents more quickly than small operators.
With many rent bills going unpaid during the pandemic — and with landlords having no recourse for collecting those bills or freeing rental units for paying customers — many are leaving the industry. Having landlords sell properties to corporate interests will further stress the market.
The pandemic undoubtedly will have a far-reaching impact on the housing market. But with renters having had a 19-month grace period, it is time for the bill to come due. Jobs are plentiful for those who are able to work, and the moratorium has served its purpose.
County leaders must do a better job of directing assistance where it is needed, but Inslee should give landlords some relief and allow the moratorium to expire.