One month after Governor Inslee lifted the Eviction Moratorium on October 31, 2021, only 12 cases were filed in Thurston Superior Court. This is less than the number of cases filed in October when the moratorium was in effect. The Court expected a deluge of unlawful detainer filings, the legal term for evictions.
Where’s the deluge?
There are at least three possible explanations. The first consists of anticipatory actions by the State Supreme Court and various Superior Courts. Second is the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 5160, which became effective April 22, 2021. The third possibility is the Landlord Mitigation Program available through the Department of Commerce.
An Eviction Response Program includes mediation and rental assistance
In September 2020 the Washington State Supreme Court, in anticipation of a large number of evictions, enabled Superior Courts to take preemptive action. In November 2020, Thurston County Superior Court issued an order stating that after expiration of the moratorium, a landlord seeking a residential eviction for non-payment must first comply with the Eviction Response Program administered by the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) of Thurston and Mason Counties.
The Center’s Eviction Response Program (ERP) offers the possibility of resolution and mediation for back due rent outside of the Court process. The landlord must inform the DRC that they have sent a 14 day notice to the tenant. If the DRC is able to contact the tenant, they let the tenant know there are funds available through the Community Action Council to pay back rent and possibly allow them to remain in their home.
Since the program became mandatory on November 1, the DRC has been involved in 331 ERP notices as of December 14. 126 were resolved and seven required formal mediation. If the DRC cannot contact the tenant within 14 days, they issue a “Dispute Resolution Certificate” which the landlord must have to proceed with a legal eviction. Thus far, the DRC has issued 38 such certificates.
The funds the DRC can help facilitate and the Community Action Council can distribute came initially from the US Treasury either directly to Thurston County or via the Department of Commerce to the County. These are Treasury Rental Assistance Program or T-RAp funds. Thurston County received approximately $37.7 million in T-RAP funds either from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of February 2021 or the American Rescue Plan Act of March 2021.
The County had distributed $14.8 million in rental assistance to 2088 households by the end of September. Thurston County is 81.5% white; most households receiving assistance are also white (62.8%), Non-white households are also receiving assistance.
In the future, it appears these rental assistance funds will come from Washington State’s Department of Commerce. The Department received a legislative allocation of $403 million for its Eviction Rent Assistance Program or ERAP 2.0. This program will eventually replace Treasury’s T-RAP allocations to the County.
New law provides unprecedented legal representation and options for reduced rent
Senate Bill 5160 which became effective April 22, 2021 gave additional protections to tenants. This bill focused on tenants who were unable to pay their rent between March 1, 2020 and December 30, 2021.
Besides other tenant protections, the bill mandates that landlords offer a “reasonable schedule for repayment of unpaid rent” before asking the Court to evict. “Reasonable” means one-third of the tenant’s rent. For example, if the tenant’s rent was $1500/month, a repayment plan could be no more than $500/month.
Another provision of the bill might help to explain the lack of formal evictions. The bill created “the nation’s first appointed counsel program for tenants in eviction proceedings,” according to Jim Bamberger, Director of the state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid (OCLA).
Now indigent individuals not only have the right to counsel in criminal matters, but also when facing eviction. OCLA had to set up an entirely new system of legal defense, engaging 13 legal aid providers, training 65 attorneys and hiring the NW Justice Project to establish a statewide point of contact for indigent tenants.
Landlords can be reimbursed for some claims
The third reason for fewer than expected evictions could be the Landlord Mitigation Program at the Washington Department of Commerce. There are actually four separate landlord funds administered by the Housing Assistance Unit of Commerce. The largest one by far is the Landlord Covid Relief Fund.
This fund allows landlords to be reimbursed up to $15,000 for any unpaid rent accrued between March 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021 if the tenant leaves his home voluntarily. If the landlord gets reimbursed, the landlords can’t take legal action against the tenant for unpaid rent or for damages.
At the end of November 2021, there were 10,024 landlord claims statewide in the amount of $48.3 million. Of that amount, $23.7 million has been distributed to landlords. In Thurston County, landlords have submitted 160 requests for reimbursement.
Evictions of unsheltered people continue in Thurston County
There are, of course, “evictions” that take place outside the Superior Court. Governor Inslee lifted the moratorium at the end of October. People living on land without the owner’s permission were left unprotected. Olympians saw this winter what can happen next.
For over two years an estimated average of eighty individuals lived in an encampment on the Deschutes Parkway. The owners of the nine parcels are Sean Threatt, Jean Holbrook and Richard Marcelynas. According to the City’s press release, these property owners requested that the City enforce trespass laws and remove the people living there.
The City did just that on Wednesday, December 8. The City did that while at the same time stating “it does not have the resources to provide alternative shelter options…” Whether the City will continue this practice and remove homeless people from other encampments remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, it seems that as long as tenants participate in the now mandatory DRC process, there will be no flood of legal evictions for nonpayment. Of course, the DRC process must be adequately staffed to deal with the volume of requests, the County’s funds need to continue to flow and the Community Action Council’s capacity must be sufficient to distribute the needed funds. With all this in place, it seems possible that legal evictions, a leading cause of homelessness, will remain low for the immediate future.
Dan Leahy lives on Olympia’s Westside and has been writing housing-related articles for Works In Progress over the past several years.
Wading through homelessness.
Can you imagine a lengthy stay?
Mired in mud and damp
I did it just one day.
I was with refugees in Lesvos
fleeing US wars.
Their camps were no where close to
these homegrown sores.
beneath official contempt,
private property points its finger
cleanse the vermin’s tent!
Not one Council member
came with their personal conviction
Just phone calls from their director
The police will enforce the eviction.
The Council would rather tour sites
with their own millionaire builder
designing a city these US refugees
could never get past the filter.
There is a fundamental criminality
that this local government endorses
as it spouts its equity claptrap
and sends in its police forces.