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News / Business / Clark County Business

As mediation program for tenants and landlords ends, evictions surge in Clark County

August saw 202 eviction cases — more than double June's number

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: September 30, 2023, 6:14am
4 Photos
Informational paperwork for a tenant about an eviction resolution pilot program is pictured at Community Mediation Services offices Wednesday morning, Sept. 7, 2022.
Informational paperwork for a tenant about an eviction resolution pilot program is pictured at Community Mediation Services offices Wednesday morning, Sept. 7, 2022. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

You can feel the stress in Room 302 of the Clark County Courthouse.

It’s in the restless legs of people whose knees bounce nervously as they balance stacks of court documents on their laps. It’s in the hunched backs being comfortingly rubbed by friends and family.

It’s the fear of walking out of those courtroom doors with no place to call home and a hindrance to finding another one.

This is Clark County’s unlawful detainer docket, where every Thursday the court orders evictions. And the stress within it has been growing as the number of eviction cases has surged in recent months.

In August, Clark County experienced the highest number of eviction filings in one month that it’s had in years, according to court records. August saw 202 eviction cases — more than double the number from June.

Although experts cite a variety of reasons, the increase does coincide with the June 30 end of the state’s pandemic-era protections against evictions, including the two-year Eviction Resolution Pilot Program and two state rental assistance programs.

The eviction resolution program helped tenants and landlords mediate their differences before their cases went to court and resulted in an eviction.

Just how fair and successful the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program was is debated, but the program did prevent many cases from reaching court, where a filing would stain a renter’s record no matter the outcome.

The exact number of eviction filings the program prevented is unknown. But with more than 13,000 people in Clark County accessing the program within its last year and an eviction filing avoided around three out of four times after mediation, mediators say the impact was significant.

Now with the program gone — and with Clark County being third in the state last year for evictions despite being fifth in population — many people, including court officials, are clamoring for another option to keep eviction filings in check.

“We are stretched incredibly thin,” said Superior Court Judge Emily Sheldrick, who usually hears the eviction docket.

An attempt to curb evictions

The state expected an influx of evictions after the Oct. 31, 2021, end of the eviction moratorium — a halt on evictions for nonpayment of rent across the state that was created by Gov. Jay Inslee in the midst of the economic challenges of the pandemic. So, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5160, authorizing the establishment of an Eviction Resolution Pilot Program in any county.

Six counties, making up 80 percent of the state’s evictions, established the program within their jurisdictions: Spokane, King, Pierce, Thurston, Snohomish and Clark.

The goals of the program were straightforward: fewer people losing their homes, landlords not being burdened with the cost of court fees, less demand on the judicial system and tenants being able to avoid an eviction filing on their record.

With the help of professionals trained in resolving differences between opposing parties, the two-year pilot provided mediation between landlords seeking evictions and tenants late on rent.

The program also offered tenants referrals to rental and legal assistance and other resources.

The legislation required landlords in these six counties to inform tenants whom they wanted to evict about the program. If tenants chose mediation, the law required the landlords to participate. Also under the program, at least until May of this year, landlords were required to accept monthly payments for past-due rent that did not exceed one-third of the monthly rent.

A landlord could only file for an eviction in court after receiving a certificate from a Dispute Resolution Center, which facilitated the program, confirming they had given tenants the proper information about the program.

“Just having that extra step, I think, is a small incentive for a landlord to actually come to the table and try and find a solution other than just immediately getting that tenant out and getting a new tenant in,” said Carl Snodgrass, an attorney with Northwest Justice Project.

Jody Suhrbier, interim executive director of the statewide organization of dispute resolution centers, said landlords frequently embraced that opportunity to avoid the court process and decided against seeking eviction.

“A lot of landlords really see mediation as a much more human process and particularly for smaller landlords that have maybe one to 10 properties,” said Suhrbier, whose organization, Resolution Washington, represents nonprofit dispute centers across the state.

Suhrbier said the benefit was particularly valuable for small-scale landlords, many of whom don’t have attorneys on retainer. “So for them, mediation is a much more cost-effective process.”

Did it work?

Between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023, more than 1,200 eviction cases were filed in Clark County. During that same time, the program served 13,516 people who faced eviction in the region and who otherwise might have ended up directly in court.

In fact, according to Clark County Community Mediation Services, people accessing the program avoided going to court around at least three out of four times, staying in their housing or finding alternative housing without an eviction. In the last year of the program, 77 percent of mediation cases ended in agreement.

Those odds would appear to be an advantage considering more than half of unlawful detainer filings in Clark County since 2022 have ended in a court-ordered eviction, according to court records.

Nate Powers, deputy director of Clark County Community Mediation Services, described mediation as leveling the playing field between landlords and tenants.

“Nobody had an eviction on their record,” Powers said. “Landlords weren’t spending money on attorney fees to go into court. So I think it was a win-win for housing and Clark County in general.”

The program worked for Larissa Goldsby, whose family had fallen behind on its rent when the moratorium ended in 2021.

She was on the verge of selling her car to pay rent, but the staff at Community Mediation Services informed her that she was eligible for rental assistance. They helped her secure the funds. Then, through mediation, she and her landlord reached an agreement.

“It’s the only reason why we were able to stay in our apartment,” Goldsby said.

A ‘huge hit’ for landlords

Quinn Posner, an attorney who serves as the legal adviser for the Clark County Rental Association, said the program hurt landlords and simply delayed cases from going to court.

Posner said landlords were facing payment delays of three to six months as a result of the program. “It was a huge hit for mom-and-pop landlords.”

Last year, an organization of real estate groups called the Washington Business Properties Association sued the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program in Spokane County, arguing the delays were illegal and that landlords have a right to access the courts. The association has appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.

“During these pre-suit delays, landlords are deprived of access to their real property without meaningful legal remedy,” the complaint stated.

Resolution Washington reports the median duration of a case within the program was 32 days, with those involving mediation or conciliation was 48 days.

Posner said any future eviction-diversion efforts must feature a speedy process so landlords aren’t losing money while they wait for completion. In Clark County Superior Court, eviction cases usually take about a week, attorneys explain.

“The reason why the (Eviction Resolution Pilot Program) was mandated is because we were dealing with COVID and everything that was going on with that emergency,” Posner said. “And I think it’s something that both sides need to want to go into voluntarily, and it’s got to be a fast, efficient process.”

Posner said his clients were still facing delays, even when their tenants weren’t using the program, which was often, he said. Dispute Resolution Centers make three attempts to contact a tenant before giving a landlord a certificate to take to court as evidence the landlord has met the requirement to inform the tenant.

In June, more than a third of tenants statewide facing eviction did make use of the program, according to Resolution Washington. Since the program’s July 2021 launch, 28 percent of participants chose mediation, conflict coaching or conciliation. The remainder received referrals and information.

Two-and-a-half months after the program’s end, Community Mediation Services’ Powers said his agency still receives many phone calls from tenants and landlords asking for the program.

“The program wasn’t all roses, for sure. It could be, I’m sure, tougher for landlords,” Powers said. “But I think in the end results, we were able to really do some good.”

Consequences of eviction

The chance to avoid having an eviction on one’s rental record is significant, as Esther Thompson knows.

Thompson said she had two evictions for nonpayment of rent before the program existed. Her last one landed her on the streets of Vancouver, where she and her small children remained homeless for a year and a half.

She was scraping together money to apply for housing just to watch it disappear in letters of denial. Thompson said finding housing after an eviction filing feels nearly impossible.

“You get a denial and you sob,” she said.

She didn’t have help navigating resources until she met a homelessness liaison at her son’s school.

“It was an absolute nightmare trying to navigate the systems in Vancouver,” she said.

Failure to pay rent can affect a person in many ways.

A landlord can refer the debt to an agency whose representatives will repeatedly contact a tenant to collect payment, creating added stress for the tenant. Failure to pay for extended periods also can prompt a landlord to report a tenant to a credit rating agency, which can then result in a poorer credit record.

Moreover, studies, like a 2021 investigation by University of Pennsylvania researchers, report facing eviction can put a person at greater risk for anxiety and depression. A 2022 study by University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center researchers found that mortality rates are higher in counties with more evictions.

According to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center researchers, the eviction filing experience also disproportionately affects women and Black renters, who used the program significantly.

One out of every four people who made use of the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program in Washington were Black, despite Black people making up less than 5 percent of the state’s population. Statewide, women accessed the service 18 percent more often than men.

What’s next for Clark County?

With Clark County’s high level of evictions, eviction notice filings have overwhelmed the court system in Clark County so much that the Superior Court created a special docket just for the cases.

Get help

If you receive a summons for an eviction, call Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program at 360-356-7872 to see if you qualify for representation.

Clark County Community Mediation Services can provide free assistance with matters related to eviction. Contact them at info@mediationclarkcounty.org or 360-334-5862.

Judge Sheldrick, who is in charge of that docket, said the level of cases is concerning. “There’s no doubt that this is a tremendous impact on our court system,” she said.

Besides stretching the court’s resources, the burden has impacted volunteer lawyers who represent tenants.

Attorneys usually have less than a week to prepare for eviction cases, said Ben Moody, a managing attorney at Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program. He said attorneys in Clark County are taking on around twice as many cases are they should as of August.

“And yeah, that is inevitably going to create some burnout,” he said.

Contributing to the housing and eviction problem in Clark County is that two state-funded rent assistance programs ended June 30.

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“It was really tough,” Powers said. “Because we not only had to tell folks, ‘Hey, I’m sorry. We don’t have the mandate to be able to ask your landlord to come to the table… and unfortunately, on top of that, we don’t know of any rental assistance money.’”

Suhrbier of Resolution Washington emphasized the eviction-resolution program didn’t end because the number of eviction notices decreased. “The program ended because it was statutorily written that it would.”

Some of the aspects of the now-defunct program continue. On Aug. 1, the city of Vancouver gave Community Mediation Services $50,000 from its Community Development Block Grant Programs fund to provide mediation on a voluntary basis, providing staffing costs to cover 90 mediations and 50 conflict coaching sessions.

Morrison said he’s applying for grants and other funding as well. He noted that Community Mediation Services lost almost half its staff when state funding ended.

“We’re still fighting. We’re not going anywhere,” he said.

With the eviction resolution program now concluded and landlords no longer required to participate in mediation, Suhrbier said it is unlikely local governments will step in to mandate new programs.

But Judge Sheldrick recently helped secure funding for the court to launch an eviction diversion initiative.

It’s not clear what the effort might look like, but the court is forming a stakeholders group of landlord attorneys, staff from the Clark County Volunteer Lawyer Program and the Northwest Justice Project and a representative from Community Services. Court Administrator Cheryl Stone said the court is contracting with Community Mediation Services to deliver the program.

Preventive efforts across the state

In recent years, the state has passed several tenant protection laws, including those that extended the pay-or-vacate notice times from three days to 14 and established the right to a free attorney for tenants who cannot afford one in unlawful detainer cases.

Even so, homelessness and evictions have continued to rise in Clark County.

Those who deal with homelessness and housing are quick to note that addressing the county’s high rental rates, now averaging $1,610 for a one-bedroom apartment, would help ease the eviction numbers. But that effort escapes quick action.

Meanwhile, Washington prohibits local entities from controlling rents.

But several proposals were introduced this year in the Legislature that called for rent stabilization, which would have limited excessive rent increases, allowing landlords to increase rents only by a certain percentage annually.

None of the measures were successful.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said the Legislature will discuss reducing evictions and helping renters stay in their homes next year.

“The Legislature made tremendous progress this year addressing our affordable housing crisis, but this problem wasn’t created overnight and won’t be solved overnight either,” Cleveland said in an emailed statement. “These are complicated challenges that require multi-pronged solutions that will require our focus for multiple legislative sessions ahead.”

However, several municipalities in Washington are taking up the issue of renter protections independently. About a dozen miles northeast of Seattle, the city of Kenmore passed an ordinance last year increasing the notice landlords have to give before raising rents by a certain amount, and Bellingham will vote on a similar requirement in November.

The Washington Business Properties Association is challenging Kenmore’s ordinance in court.

It’s not yet clear what Clark County’s solution for its climbing eviction numbers might look like. Or if the region will see one.

But until another method is found, it appears likely the benches in Clark County’s eviction court will continue to fill each Thursday.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.