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caption: Christa Wells is a tenant who was forced to move out of her rental during Washington state's eviction ban. Robert Akhtar is a landlord who fears financial ruin due to unpaid rent.
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Christa Wells is a tenant who was forced to move out of her rental during Washington state's eviction ban. Robert Akhtar is a landlord who fears financial ruin due to unpaid rent.
Credit: Christa Wells/Robert Akhtar

As Inslee considers extending WA's eviction ban, some tenants and landlords slip through the cracks

The eviction moratorium in Washington state, enacted to keep people from losing their housing amid the pandemic, is set to expire December 31.

As Governor Jay Inslee considers whether to extend or modify it, supporters and critics say it's been a blunt tool that helps many but leaves some to struggle on their own.

Landlords say they’re being asked to carry the burden of unpaid rent. Meanwhile, tenants say they’re approaching a breaking point.

T

o see how the eviction moratorium is supposed to work, consider the case of Arianna Laureano, a renter in Seattle's University District.

Laureano and her roommate are both hourly workers. In the beginning of the pandemic, when they didn’t have as much work, they fell behind on rent. They’re paying again now, but Laureano said their landlord has soured on them.

“We owe $4,000, so he wants us gone," she said. "The eviction moratorium’s really been the only thing that’s prevented that from happening.”

But the moratorium's protection didn't kick in automatically. Laureano's landlord claimed it didn't apply here, so Laureano enlisted the tenant advocacy group Be:Seattle to convince him.

As a safety net, the eviction moratorium doesn't catch everybody.

One important thing to know is that the eviction ban does not function like an "on" or "off" switch — it’s more like a water spigot. And right now, the spigot of evictions is turned down to a trickle, because of the moratorium.

But landlords can still kick people out, under the right conditions. For example, if the landlord wants to sell the home. That’s what happened to Christa Wells, in Edmonds.

“It’s not awesome," Wells said of her situation. "The timing is terrible.”

Wells is a musician and a yoga instructor. She couldn’t find work in the beginning of the pandemic either, but she managed to pay her rent by doing a fundraiser on Facebook. So, she thought she was safe.

But then, her landlord’s daughter called to say she was coming by to drop off some papers; she wouldn’t say why.

“And I was like, 'I need you to be frank with me. Are you guys raising my rent, are you evicting me?'" Wells recalled.

According to Wells, the landlord's daughter responded: "To be clear, we’re not evicting you, we’re going to sell the house, so this is a move-out notice.”

Whether it’s technically an eviction or not, it felt like one to Wells. She would have 60 days, until just after Christmas, to find a new place to live for her and her two kids. It would be a challenging task during normal times, but during the pandemic, it proved especially difficult.

“I hit the ground running, scrambling, trying to figure out how to qualify [for] a brand new rental when they want you to make three times the amount of the rent, and I need a three bedroom house, and I’m more than unemployed. So it’s just been a really crazy time,” she said.

Wells found a new place, and she got financial help from Volunteers for America, which paid her first and last month’s rent and deposit. The money comes from the federal CARES Act. (Renters in crisis can connect with services like these by calling 2-1-1.)

These two tenant stories demonstrate how the eviction moratorium has helped people, and where its biggest holes are.

But it’s not just tenants that are falling through the cracks. Landlords have stories of hardship too. And they're arguing that while tenant stories have grabbed much of the press, landlords have been asked to silently endure severe financial hardship for the greater good.

A landlord's plight

Robert Akhtar owns an 18 unit apartment building in SeaTac. He said cumulatively — his tenants have racked up over 70,000 dollars in unpaid rent.

“It gives me sleepless nights, to be honest," he said. "I’m scared.”

He said he doesn’t have access to free lawyers or grants or low interest government loans to help him out.

For Akhtar and his wife, this property represents their retirement income. Before the pandemic, they spent most of their savings upgrading the building. Now, they have no cushion to absorb their rising debt.

The bank has let Akhtar defer his mortgage payments, but Akhtar has other bills, too: Property taxes, utilities and construction costs — all bills he can’t pay. Some are due now. Some he said will be due immediately when the eviction moratorium ends.

“I’m just hoping that there’s some miracle out there, that this moratorium stops. Or at least, our lawmakers come back and look at these difficulties from all angles. And maybe there is some support, some help given, to these ailing landlords such as us, that are severely behind on fulfilling our obligations.”

Landlords do have some avenues for relief that tenants don’t have. For example, they can sell their property. Landlords big enough to have employees can get money to help pay their staff.

Akhtar said he's received offers from real estate speculators, but they're for far less than he feels his property is worth.

Akhtar added he's one of the many small landlords falling through the cracks. He said when the moratorium is lifted, he’ll have no choice but to evict tenants who haven’t paid.

An impending deadline

Governor Jay Inslee – is hearing arguments from both sides right now. In the next few weeks, he’ll decide – whether to nudge the eviction moratorium in one direction or the other, to help landlords or tenants. To help him make that decision, he's assembled an advisory group.

On the landlord side is the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association.

Brett Waller is the director of government affairs for the Washington Multifamily Housing Association. His group isn't pushing to eliminate the moratorium, but they do want to narrow who is protected to those who can prove they need it.

“We’re the only state on the West Coast, where a tenant does not have to assert Covid hardship in order to enjoy the protections of the moratorium,” he said.

Waller said the core problem with the eviction ban is lack of communication. He said landlords and tenants need to be able to talk about unpaid rent, so landlords can better manage risk and plan for the future. He said under the ban, landlords have no idea whether unpaid rent will ever be paid at all.

On the tenant side is Edmund Witter, managing attorney with the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project. The group provides free lawyers for people facing eviction.

Witter's group has been studying where evictions are happening and why. To this end, they teamed up with Microsoft to develop an online tool that compiles information from eviction records. Witter said he hopes this will help advocates and policymakers measure the effect of whatever modifications are made to the eviction ban.

The tool currently shows that while evictions remain low, the two most common reasons evictions do occur during the pandemic are "lease violations/behavior" and "owner wishes to sell/occupy."

Witter said it's important to minimize evictions because they're a major contributor to homelessness.

“When we’ve surveyed our clients, about three out of four can’t find permanent housing. About a third end up staying with friends and family. About another third end up completely unsheltered or within the shelter system.”

The governor has to make a decision by the end of the month on how to balance the hardship these parties are facing. For tenants, the worst case scenario is homelessness. For landlords, it’s being forced to sell against their will.