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Outdated tenant laws

Promoting homelessness one eviction at a time

Even if you’ve never been evicted, we can all agree that three days is not enough time to access housing assistance resources or find a new place to live. None of us want to see another family or individual in the traumatic situation of housing instability. Yet the reality is, evictions are a leading cause of homelessness.

Our current outdated tenant and eviction laws protect the financial interests of the few over the fundamental needs of the many. Tenants have only three days to catch up on back rent, regardless of the reason they fell behind. Judges do not have discretion to consider the full facts of the situation. As a result, tenants are facing the trauma, expense and long-term destabilization of eviction for as little as $2. The leading reason Washington tenants face eviction is for falling behind only a month or less in rent after experiencing setbacks we can all relate to: medical emergencies, temporary loss of income, or a death in the family. These temporary hardships that are beyond our control should not push families out of housing and onto the streets.

Passing legislation to reform the eviction process (SB 5600 / HB 1453) creates low-cost solutions to immediately stem the flow of families falling into homelessness. The common sense approaches in these bills, such as extending the notice to pay or vacate to 14 days and allowing judges to fully consider the facts of a situation, have been implemented in much of the country for decades, in states ranging from Tennessee to Ohio to Vermont.

Yet the reality is, evictions are a leading cause of homelessness.

We also need to protect renters from arbitrary tenancy terminations by passing SB 5733 / HB 1656. Currently, month-to-month tenants can receive a 20-day notice to vacate for any reason and because landlords don’t have to provide a legitimate business reason, tenants are not protected against discrimination or retaliation. Local government attempts to require cause are weakened because landlords can get around local protections by terminating the tenancy at the end of a fixed term lease agreement.

We all see the evidence of inaction as more and more people are forced to survive on the streets, couch-surf, sleep in cars or settle for unsafe housing. There is no denying that Washington is in a housing crisis that for thousands of people is life threatening. We know that people of color, women, seniors, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, veterans, low-wage workers, and families are disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis. If our legislators follow the lead of much of the country, we will be able to set higher standards to keep people housed and help all communities in our state.

Once housing is lost, there are cascading consequences. While we all believe that every one of us should be treated equally under the law, everyday criminal justice policies and ordinances penalize people for not having housing. HB 1591, dubbed the “Homeless Bill of Rights” seeks to decriminalize homelessness.

People without a better option sleep on the streets, in cars, or in an encampment and risk authorities confiscating their property, being banned from public spaces, or ending up in jail. Fines, fees, and a criminal record only increase barriers to well-being, housing and stability for the individual and the whole community. Taxpayers want to see real comprehensive solutions, not expensive constitutionally questionable approaches that do nothing to address the reasons why so many people in Washington end up homeless.

Further, when we are caught in legal proceedings that could cause us to fall further from the solid ground we need, we should have access to an attorney who can stand up for our most basic rights. In fact, 82% of Americans believe everyone should have access to legal help or representation in civil legal matters—this is a fundamental American value. We can advance justice in the civil legal system across Washington by increasing access to legal aid services for people experiencing homelessness as is done in HB 1591.

In this critical moment in Washington, we need our lawmakers to advance common sense solutions to one of our state’s biggest problems: the housing crisis. Pass SB 5600 / HB 1453; SB 5733 / HB 1656 and HB 1591 without delay.

Editor’s note: the session is unfolding as you read this. To track bills, visit the WA Legislature bill tracker at https://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/

Sarah Stockholm is a community organizer and Popular Educator working with Showing Up for Racial Justice and Washington Community Action Network at the intersections of race & class and community & legislation. Contact her at sastockholm@gmail.com.

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