The Washington state eviction moratorium was extended on March 18 for what is expected to be the last time before it officially expires on June 30. In response, the Washington State Legislature announced a new bill with the intent to alleviate the pressures of the expiring moratorium and improve tenant protections.
The eviction moratorium, originally introduced by Gov. Jay Inslee in March 2020, has been extended several times throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A proclamation signed on March 18, 2020 by Inslee, outlines a temporary pause on evictions that would occur if a tenant was unable to pay their rent or a raise in their rent, unless it was under specific circumstances.
Tony Casale, director of Leased Housing at Bellingham and Whatcom Housing Authority, expressed worry about the moratorium's expiration.
“As a housing authority, we’re kind of wondering what happens when that sun sets on June 31st,” Casale said.
In addition to the possibility of increased evictions, Casale mentioned that the Bellingham and Whatcom Housing Authority plan to receive a number of rent-increase requests that are higher than normal as landlords try to make up the difference of the past year.
Christopher D’Onofrio, program specialist at Whatcom County Health Department, focuses on homelessness and housing.
“The eviction moratorium has been tremendously helpful for thousands of Whatcom County households who have been able to stay housed because of it,” D’Onofrio said in an email to The Front. “It’s also been a challenge for others, especially landlords who have been unable to rely on rental income.”
D’Onofrio also said those working in the housing and homeless service provision are incredibly busy right now as they attempt to get assistance for renters sorted before the moratorium expires.
However, in an effort to protect tenants once the moratorium expires, seven Washington state senators sponsored Bill 5160 which was then introduced, signed and put into effect on April 22.
According to Bill 5160, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nonpayment of rent was the leading cause of evictions in Washington state making the bill’s intention “to increase tenant protections during the public health emergency.”
Additionally, the bill aims to provide legal representation for qualifying tenants facing eviction, establish an eviction resolution pilot program and ensure landlords and tenants have the opportunity to access state and local rental assistance programs.
“The evictions hopefully will be partially mitigated by the right to counsel that has now been signed by the governor,” Casale said in reference to the bill.
Section eight of Bill 5160 states that the court must appoint an attorney for an indigent tenant, meaning those who receive financial assistance and benefits as well as those who are “receiving an annual income, after taxes, of 200 percent or less of the current federally established poverty level.”
Sections 12 and 13, which provided landlords access to rental assistance programs under certain circumstances as well as an additional $7.5 million budget for landlord assistance, was vetoed.
Inslee wrote his reasons for vetoing section 12 were due to the concerns that it would create “an entitlement for landlords to receive assistance without sufficient framework to prioritize resources to those landlords who have the greatest need.”
Inslee also stated that enacting section 12 would cost $2.4 billion, which is “$1.5 billion more than is currently appropriated by the state or awarded by the federal government.”
Section 13 was deemed too similar to a previous action Bill ESHB 1368, which had been previously signed by Inslee in February 2021.
Two home renters, Kim and Ron Harvey from Spokane, think the new bill is a great idea, but more work needs to be done to protect tenants.
The Harveys have had an especially difficult time this past year, with their landlord attempting to evict them multiple times despite the moratorium. While they feel enacting legal counsel for tenants is a step in the right direction, they said they’ve noticed an inherent bias when it comes to tenants in court.
“How they looked at us was, ‘They didn’t pay,”’ Ron Harvey said. “It was not true, but that’s the perceived value when you walk in.”
The Harveys said they hope the bill will assist people who have been treated unfairly like they have.
“Somebody is going to try and cheat if they can,” Ron Harvey said. “Solid oversight and legitimate people in place to ensure that help is given. But if you don't know how to navigate a system and you don't have an attorney it's difficult.”
Les Lee, a Bellingham landlord who owns properties in Fairhaven that he typically rents out to local students, is also in support of the new bill.
Lee said he recognizes that landlords are in a position of power and he hopes that this bill will help tenants understand their legal rights. Lee said he also feels there are many bad landlords in Bellingham that give a bad name to others.
“Informed and supported tenants would be able to give those crappy landlords enough of a headache that they would eventually learn to shape up or get out of business,” Lee said. “The solution to bad landlords is empowered tenants.”
Caroline Brooks is a journalism student and a reporter for The Front. Her work includes local features and Bellingham-based news.