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An open letter to city officials in Thurston County

To forestall a looming crisis for renters and landlords

Pass an ordinance so that rental debt accrued during the COVID-19 crisis is not a basis for evictions during this time or thereafter.

In order to prevent an eviction crisis and not push people into homelessness, it is increasingly necessary for cities and counties to put into place policies that make debt accrued during this time not a reason to evict at any point in the future.

Before this pandemic shut cities down, and sent unemployment skyrocketing, renters already had few protections against abusive practices, and were overburdened with rent. Housing was the most important issue to voters before the pandemic, and additional polling found it remained top of mind for voters even as the virus spread. Now in the midst of this pandemic, the rental housing crisis has become more urgent for more households than ever before.

Even after COVID is no longer a threat, many will be coping with a housing crisis even more dire than anything our region has seen before. Evictions have devastating and long-lasting effects on families and society. They are a leading cause of homelessness. In 2019, Thurston County counted 800 homeless living on the street (the number is higher now, but the results of the 2020 count are not posted, and in any case it didn’t account for the pandemic).

Our county does not have resources to handle the massive influx of folks that will enter the homelessness system if these protections are not in place.

Without protection from eviction for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic, payment plans will neither help those who have fallen so far behind that they cannot catch up nor help those who still do not have any means to pay rent.

Prohibiting evictions in perpetuity on debt accrued during this period is something city council members have clear legal powers to pass. A renter would still owe the underlying debt, but a failure to pay would not result in an eviction. Instead, a landlord could seek the money in small claims or through a debt collector. So while it does not cure the debt, it does ensure that renters who cannot pay due to the toll COVID has had on our economy are not forced out of their homes.

With August 1, the ending of Governor Inslee’s moratorium, approaching, many no longer wonder what the impact will be; rather, how can we overcome them? Without the city taking action, the burden will fall not only on renters, but their landlords too; not only on civil legal aid, but on our justice system too. Agencies across the state are seeking Statewide and Federal assistance to prepare to assist tenants when the time comes, but funds are exhausted as quickly as they come. This will force agencies to use a lottery system to distribute limited funds.  To ensure these efforts are successful and have the strongest impact on renters in your community, it is your job to enact policies that will ensure that the debt forcefully accrued upon renters, during COVID-19 is not a basis for eviction.

The decisions and policies you make from this point forward will have a great impact on the economic recovery.

By way of enacting such policies, you can keep families stably housed, while preventing our social services and judicial systems from being overburdened and stretched ever more thinly. Health professionals anticipate a second wave of COVID in the fall. If you do not act now to protect renters, we will see an increase in homelessness that will worsen the spread of COVID and further endanger the health and safety of our community.

This letter was drafted and circulated by Washington Community Action Network as part of a call to elected leaders to prevent the use of rent payments missed during the COVID-19 shutdown as a cause for eviction. An invitation to sign the letter is on the Just Housing Facebook page.

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