Housing and Homelessness

7 Questions Answered About Seattle's Fight Against Eviction

Seattle City Council members say they plan to combat the "eviction crisis."

By Haley Gray February 6, 2019

Seattle City Council members on Monday took another step to address what they’re now calling an “eviction crisis.”

The council approved a resolution that promises to later pass legislation to curb evictions, part of snowballing efforts in the region to address homelessness and housing affordability.

Support to address evictions gained momentum after the Seattle Women’s Commission and Housing Justice Project published “Losing Home”— a report that examined 1,218 evictions in Seattle from 2017, analyzed demographic data and other trends, and recommended policy changes to address its root causes.

Here’s what we’ve learned since then.

What causes evictions in Seattle?

Half of 2017 evictions in Seattle resulted from tenants falling behind on rent, according to the September report. Most evictions led to homelessness.

Advocates also say that state law doesn’t provide enough protection for tenants. In Washington, renters facing eviction have just three days after they get an eviction notice to catch up on rent or vacate the property.

“Part of the problem is how bad eviction laws are in Washington state as a whole,” Edmund Witter, managing director of the King County Bar Association Housing Justice Project, told PubliCola

Witter, who was once an eviction lawyer in New York City, said his clients were rarely evicted for nonpayment of less than two months’ worth of rent; weren’t gouged with legal fees; and were given more time to stay in the unit and catch up on what they owed.

In Washington, renters become responsible for their own and the landlord’s legal costs associated with the eviction.

“I probably could count on two hands the number of people I saw get evicted that were either my or my staff’s clients in New York,” Witter said. “I see more people get evicted in a single day in Seattle than in my entire seven years in New York City.”

What does the resolution passed Monday do?

Resolutions don’t actually change law, but they’re statements of intent.

The one passed Monday recognizes findings from “Losing Home” and calls on the council to explore legislation within the year that would implement the report’s suggestions, like making it easier to pay rent and strengthening tenants’ rights.   

It also states that the council could address several other causes of eviction in Seattle, such as  domestic violence, medical costs and hospitalization, and other temporary financial hardships.

Over the longer term, it calls on the council to consider solutions for situations when a tenant facing eviction needs physical or mental health care; when the lease holder dies, but there are other tenants living in the unit; and when reporting of landlord-tenant debt in credit reports hinders tenants from securing new housing. 

What can tenants be evicted for in Seattle?

Besides not paying rent, tenants can be evicted for not paying utilities, breaking the rules of the lease, or turning 18. (Minors don’t need to be named on a lease, but adults do—even if they’re the legal tenant’s child.) 

Are landlord-charged fees regulated in any way?

There is no legal limit to what a landlord can charge a tenant for things other than rent. Landlords can set late fees as they see fit, Witter said, and can even charge a “notice fee” for posting a late fee to a tenant’s door.

Witter said he’s seen notice fees approaching $100 piled on top of $100 late fees, even after the rent was paid.

Other cities have funds to help low-income tenants facing financial emergencies make rent to avoid eviction. Does Seattle have that?

Tenants facing eviction must navigate a bulwark of different nonprofits to get help. They must do so within the three-day window between notice of eviction and the sheriff’s knock on their door. Activists say that’s an all but impossible feat. 

In separate pledges in December and January, the Seattle Mariners and Microsoft put together a total of $8 million to help those facing eviction. But because it’s not a city-budgeted program, it’s one-time funding rather than sustained revenue.

What has the city done since the Seattle Women's Commission report was published?

In November, the city allocated funds in the 2019–2020 budget to centralize resources available to individuals facing eviction, plus contract nonprofits embedded in vulnerable populations (such as low-income, communities of color, and LGBTQ communities) to provide outreach.

The city also funded research on more effective ways to address substandard conditions in rental housing.

What’s happening with eviction reform at the state level?

There are several bills to watch in the state legislature this session. 

Senate Bill 5600, sponsored by Bellevue Democrat Patty Kuderer, would further protect renters with more regulations, including requiring landlords to provide 60 days written notice before raising the rent.

Seattle Democrat Nicole Macri is also sponsoring two separate bills—one that would require landlords to provide tenants facing eviction clear explanations on their legal rights and direct them to free or cheap resources; and another that would add more protections for tenants.

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