Seattle renters: You have the right to an attorney
Soon, Seattle renters who are facing eviction will have the right to a free lawyer, thanks to a new law passed by the City Council Monday.
“If your landlord attempts to evict you, you have the right to a lawyer being with you, defending you, just like you have the right to attorney if you’re accused of a crime," said Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the bill's lead sponsor.
The bill provides funding for lawyers before the end of the eviction moratorium; most recently extended through June of 2021 at the federal, state, and city level.
Many renters could face eviction at the end of that moratorium, though state bills being considered in Olympia now could redefine the rules around how those evictions may proceed.
One of those bills would also provide a right to legal counsel statewide, but Sawant says Seattle's bill goes much further.
The vote on the local bill in the City Council Monday was unanimous, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an emotional debate.
The disagreement centered around an amendment, which eventually passed. The amendment requires renters seeking free legal help to sign a statement (a "self attestation") saying they cannot afford a lawyer on their own.
Many members of the public spoke against that idea, including Blythe from Mt. Baker.
“These people should not have to go through the humiliating process of essentially proving that they’re poor in order to access an attorney,” she said.
The core disagreement seemed to be whether this additional hurdle would prevent people from accessing the service.
But backers of the amendment, which included every council member except Sawant, said the extra step is simple, and it will prevent abuse and help the law survive legal challenges.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, while not going into detail, suggested that council members had already received a briefing on from city lawyers on anticipated legal challenges in a closed door session earlier that same day.
"I don't want to violate the fight club rules of executive session," he said. "But I think it is important that we center the guidance and advice of the team that successfully defeated vigorous legal actions against Just Cause Eviction, against First in Time protections, against the various eviction moratoriums this council has enacted. I appreciate the council member's diligence in crafting something that will provide this service to everyone that will need it, while at the same time strengthening this law against the challenges that we know will come from deep pocketed and very well resourced landlord interests that will sue to try to get rid of it."
The free legal services for renters will be provided by the Housing Justice Project, a project of the King County Bar Association.