Fewer WA renters face eviction now than before COVID. Will that last?

Fearing a flood of evictions after the end of key pandemic protections, Washington state lawmakers attempted to stem the tide with hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance and an array of new renter protections. So far, it appears those efforts have worked. But experts wonder: How long can the dam hold?

Even as eviction filings climbed across the state last year once eviction moratoriums expired, they remained below pre-pandemic levels. That is particularly true in King County, where landlords filed half as many eviction cases in 2022 as they did in 2019, a trend that continued into early 2023.

Advocates and attorneys say interventions meant to keep tenants housed have made a difference. Legal reforms have “fundamentally changed the rules of the game,” concluded the state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid.

Assistance programs and new regulations allow landlords and tenants to resolve some cases outside of court and discourage landlords from pursuing other cases altogether, according to people on both sides of the process.

Landlords are “not just running to court and filing,” said Jane Pak, executive director of Snohomish County Legal Services. “[They] are thinking twice.”

Property owners describe the new rules as burdensome and costly, saying it has become far too complicated to quickly remove tenants who violate leases or fail to pay rent.

A “confusing” landscape of new laws “makes landlords a lot more careful,” said landlord attorney Evan Loeffler. “I expect that has resulted in less cases being filed.”

But researchers, advocates and attorneys on both sides are less certain about whether those changes will last. Financial assistance is drying up, a mandate for landlords to offer payment plans will soon expire, and affordable rental housing remains scarce. 

“At some point, these numbers are going to get back to the pre-pandemic historical levels,” said Will Beck, assistant managing attorney at Tacomaprobono. “It’s just a question of when.” 

Tenant protections

One Renton renter feared losing more than just her apartment last summer after her landlord tried to charge her for plumbing-related damage that she disputed, and then threatened to evict her.

“That could ruin my rental history. That could ruin my credit. This could really impact my future,” said the 54-year-old tenant, who was saving money and guarding her credit score in hopes of eventually buying a home. She requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the landlord.

When the tenant started looking for help, she felt alone. Some organizations couldn’t help or were at capacity with other cases; some attorneys charged far more than she could afford. She researched her rights, but wasn’t sure how best to fight the $1,500 charges and possible eviction case.

“It’s just an uneasy place to be as a tenant,” said the tenant, who had lived in her apartment for more than 10 years. “I felt like they were somewhat bulldozing me, and there was nothing I could do.”

Eventually, a nonprofit attorney helped persuade the landlord to drop the damage charges and avoid going through with an eviction case in court, the tenant said. “The only thing that helped me was the lawyer.”

Legal help is just one in an array of new laws and programs designed to help Washington tenants.

In response to the initial shock of the pandemic, the federal government approved hundreds of millions of dollars in rent assistance paid directly to landlords.

Over the last two years, the state distributed more than $700 million for rent and utilities assistance that benefited nearly 120,000 Washington households. The state has about $118 million remaining. 

That assistance, combined with a statewide eviction moratorium that lasted until fall 2021 and a Seattle moratorium that lasted until early 2022, helped many tenants avoid eviction.

But once those moratoriums ended, an uptick in evictions tested the other reforms.

Statewide legal changes have extended the timelines for pre-eviction notices, nearly outlawed no-cause evictions, required landlords to offer payment plans and mediate with tenants in rent-related cases and given low-income tenants access to legal representation. Seattle and other Washington cities have additional protections.

A sweeping package of new eviction rules passed in 2021 required Washington landlords to offer payment plans for pandemic-era debt and to notify mediation centers before evicting a tenant for nonpayment of rent. The mediators attempt to help resolve the case before it goes to court. 

That process, known as the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program, has been controversial. Some tenant advocates are concerned tenants sometimes mediate without legal help, and they say mediation offers little relief when the renter’s fundamental problem is a lack of money. Landlords complain the system is slow, forcing them to wait weeks or months to get a certificate from the dispute resolution center and proceed to court. 

Dispute resolution centers closed cases in a median 30 days last year, according to statewide data. Landlords across the state notified the centers of nearly 96,000 cases of renters behind on rent. A fraction of those have resulted in the two sides negotiating so far. Of about 11,000 cases mediated across the state last year, 32% resulted in a payment plan.

The system can work for some, like tenants who fall behind, but then find new work or recover from a sudden expense, said tenant attorney Devin Glaser, who often works with renters before their landlords have filed a case against them in court. Even outside of formal mediation, counseling or legal help could be keeping some eviction cases out of the courts.

“That’s a very strong defense in a way that just didn’t exist pre-COVID,” Glaser said. 

Legal help

Still, not all tenants can avoid court. 

One of the most significant changes to Washington’s eviction process is the guaranteed right to legal representation for low-income tenants, a program the state began rolling out in late 2021. Without guaranteed representation, researchers say most tenants appear in court without attorneys, while many landlords have attorneys.

Pre-eviction notices in Washington now tell renters they may have the right to an attorney, and judges pause proceedings to connect unrepresented tenants with legal help. Attorneys can buy tenants time, try to connect them with rent assistance, object to violations of the new laws or appeal their cases.

Especially for tenants who fall behind on rent, that’s a notable difference from the past, said King County Housing Justice Project attorney Sebastian Stockpyle. “Things were really hopeless for folks facing nonpayment [cases],” Stockpyle said.

Nearly half of cases across the state handled by right-to-counsel attorneys were for nonpayment of rent, and about 1 in 10 was for alleged violations of lease terms.

Carolina Dickerson held on to her Federal Way apartment with help from an attorney.

Dickerson’s landlord gave her a three-day notice to move out in September after the landlord alleged she allowed illegal drug activity in her apartment. Dickerson disputed the landlord’s allegations, but feared the worst. The landlord filed an eviction case in December.

“I was panicking. I was packing up my stuff because [if] they want me out, I’ve got to go, said Dickerson, 59, who lives on a fixed income and feared losing her Section 8 voucher if she was evicted.

“I don’t know where I’m going to go,” she recalls thinking. “It’s cold out here.”

Stockpyle, with the Housing Justice Project in King County, successfully argued that because of a recent court case involving the CARES Act, Dickerson’s landlord was required to give her 30 days’ notice, rather than three days. A court commissioner dismissed the case in January.

“They fought for me,” Dickerson said.

Landlords say the new eviction landscape, including tenants’ access to attorneys, unfairly drags cases out, piling up legal bills and rental debt they may never get back. 

Tenant attorneys “just drag it out as long as they can,” Loeffler said.

Evictions that used to take three weeks to a month in court can now stretch to five months or longer, said landlord attorney Kaitlyn Jackson.

Sean Flynn, a landlord and head of the Rental Housing Association, said the process favors big corporations or owners with multiple rental properties. 

“The days of the $500 eviction are gone. Evictions now run you thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars,” Flynn said.

The Office of Civil Legal Aid, which oversees the right-to-counsel program, acknowledges that eviction cases can take longer when tenants are represented. 

“This is the inevitable consequence of restoring fairness to and ensuring due process in a system that was previously skewed heavily in favor of the landlord,” leaders of the office wrote in a July report.

Cases handled by right-to-counsel attorneys close after an average of 84 days, according to data from the office, spanning January 2022 through this March. Some still-open cases may stretch longer.

The program is keeping some tenants housed.

About 34% of cases handled by right-to-counsel attorneys resulted in the tenant remaining in their housing. Others found new permanent or temporary housing. Attorneys lost contact or did not know the housing outcome for about a quarter of tenants. Six percent of tenants did not know where they would live, and 3% did not have access to housing or shelter at the end of their case, meaning they may have ended up homeless.

Research has repeatedly shown that people of color disproportionately face the threat of eviction. Among right-to-counsel cases in Washington, 14% involved Black tenants, while Black people make up just 4.5% of Washington’s population. Thirty-one percent of tenants had a disability.

In King County, more than half of tenants who worked with a right-to-counsel attorney remained in the housing where they faced eviction, according to OCLA.

Evictions back to normal” in some places

Washington wasn’t the only state to pass new renter protections as eviction fears mounted.

But all over the country, it’s difficult to pinpoint the effect of individual changes because multiple new protections, moratoriums, stimulus payments and other factors rolled out across the country at the same time, said Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University-Newark who researches eviction patterns.

For example, tenants’ access to attorneys in New York is “changing landlord behavior,” and Philadelphia is seeing fewer filings after implementing a “really strong eviction diversion program,” Hepburn said. But consider also Connecticut, where lawmakers passed a right to counsel for tenants, but eviction filings in Hartford were above pre-pandemic averages in 2022, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

“It’s not guaranteed that things will follow the same trajectory that you’re seeing in Washington,” Hepburn said.

Washington counties have seen mixed results, too. While eviction filings are down by double-digit percentages in counties near Seattle, filings are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels in Spokane and Clark counties. And in some rural counties, like Chelan and Walla Walla, filings are up slightly.

One trend is nearly universal across the state: Evictions spiked from 2021 to 2022 after the statewide eviction moratorium expired.

States and cities that have slowed down the eviction process typically see lower filing rates, Hepburn said. Places where the process is cheap and fast for landlords see the highest filing rates, sometimes from “landlords who are just using the threat of eviction as a tool for rent collection,” Hepburn said.

While it’s difficult to parse exact cause and effect from various reforms, Hepburn says the “massive pot” of federal rent assistance was key. 

“We’re going to see just how important those funds were as the money dries up,” he said.

“Cash solves a lot of problems.” 

Deadlines approaching

Not all of Washington’s new tenant protections are permanent.

The mandate that landlords notify dispute resolution centers before evicting tenants for unpaid rent is set to expire in July.

With the centers still receiving about 8,000 notices a month from landlords, “we are all waiting to see what comes,” said Jody Suhrbier, interim executive director of Resolution Washington, a network of dispute resolution centers.

Payment plans were required only for debt that accrued between March 2020 and the end of April 2023.

With fewer payment plans, Beck, the Pierce County tenant attorney, expects cases over unpaid rent to increase “because that’s no longer an offramp that tenants will have.” 

At the same time, rent assistance is running out. The Washington State Department of Commerce says it expects to exhaust remaining federal funds by a federal deadline on June 30. After that, about $30 million to $40 million in state-funded rental assistance will be available each year, a small fraction of the federal money available in recent years. 

“Band-Aid solutions

Legal changes continue to reshape the eviction process, but even vast procedural changes can’t resolve the region’s lack of affordable housing, particularly for people on the tightest fixed incomes.

More than 75% of the lowest-income Washington renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent, leaving them at risk for eviction if they lose income or have an unexpected expense. 

Landlord and tenant advocates alike have called for more rent assistance to keep rent-related evictions low, and the need for affordable housing is well-documented.

“What maintains tenancies is paying people’s rent,” Flynn said.

State officials project Washington will need hundreds of thousands more units of affordable housing for low-income people in the coming years.

“We’re doing some Band-Aid stuff,” tenant attorney Glaser said, “but we’re not fixing the overall math problem that is too many people, not enough houses and huge income inequality.”

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