Housing & Homelessness

Tenant Advocates Score a Big Win in Court, Still Want More Protections

A new report details evictions in the city last year and what Seattle should do next.

By Hayat Norimine September 21, 2018

Tenant advocates in Seattle scored a big win on Friday when the King County Superior Court upheld legislation council members passed in 2016, requiring that landlords allow payment plans for move-in costs. And the decision gives activists hope that now, elected officials might be more willing to tackle further tenant protections.

The judge, Susan Amini, rejected the Rental Housing Association of Washington's claim that the "move-in" bill violates state preemption law on regulating rent, and instead provided a Webster's Dictionary definition of "rent." Dismissing claims it violated landlords' property rights, Amini said, "these policy changes limit a landlord from rejecting an otherwise qualified tenant who seeks a payment plan option" and called it a "mild restriction" on the landlord's ability to dispose of property.

But as housing advocates celebrate the city officially being able to offer move-in payment plans, they're also taking on other battles. The court decision follows a day after the Seattle Women's Commission and Housing Justice Project released a report on evictions with one big takeaway—that current practices in the city trigger mass evictions of low-income tenants. 

Xochitl Maykovich, co-chair of the Seattle Women's Commission, said she hopes to see the city create a centralized system for eviction prevention—and develop more protections and outreach for renters. She said the judge's decision on Friday shows elected officials renters' protections could hold up in court. 

"I think in general sometimes elected officials get a little antsy about the possibility of a lawsuit," Maykovich told PubliCola. "Maybe this'll help them breathe a little sigh of relief and be more willing to look at addressing the housing crisis through reforming our tenant protections." 

Here's why advocates like Maykovich want more tenant protections: The 88-page eviction study looked at more than 1,000 eviction cases filed in city limits last year against residential households (1,473 tenants) as well as surveys and interviews with people who have been evicted and housing case managers. And the numbers the report found behind those evictions are startling. 

  • Women are far more likely to be evicted over small late paymentsof the tenants living alone who were evicted over owing $100 or less, an unsettling 81 percent were women. 
  • Black renters are especially vulnerable to evictions. The majority of those in eviction filings were people of color, but 31.2 percent were black; that's more than four times the demographic in Seattle as a whole. Just about 7 percent of the Seattle population is black, according to U.S. Census estimates. 
  • When tenants get evicted, their children's education gets disrupted. More than 85 percent of those who were forced to leave their homes with school-aged children said their kids had to move schools, or that their kids' school performances significantly suffered.
  • Do lawyers help? In Seattle, not so much. According to the report, which cites court records, only 23.4 percent of tenants with legal counsel during the eviction process remained housed—compared to 14.6 percent of tenants without attorneys. 
  • Where is it happening? In increasingly white, increasingly wealthy areas of Seattle. Most evictions (54.6 percent) occurred in areas where the median household rose by more than 20 percent between 2011 and 2016; and 43.1 percent of cases occurred in areas where the white population increased during that time. The city council district with the most evictions was District Seven at 25.9 percent (Sally Bagshaw's—Queen Anne, Pioneer Square, Belltown, Magnolia), with District Three (Kshama Sawant's, Capitol Hill) at 17.2 percent and District Five (Debora Juarez—North Seattle) at 15.3 percent. 
  • Many—almost half, 43.5 percent—of those evicted didn't stay in Seattle. 
  • The vast majority get evicted over missing one month's worth of rent or less. "I think that really dispels this idea that people who are getting evicted are just lazy," Maykovich said. "People just have one thing that happens to them, and that throws them into this crisis that can impact them for years." 
  • Nearly half those eviction cases (47 percent) were default judgments—the tenant didn't show up to court. 

The organizations called for changes in how the city approaches evictions, like increasing subsidies for those at risk, expanding cohabiting rights for tenants and landlords...and, yes, building more housing. With the city council budget session about to start, and the repeal of the head tax, you can expect housing advocates to push for more investments.

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