Free attorneys, extended ban on evictions considered

By Sydney Brown

WNPA News Service

An extension of an eviction moratorium for another two years and free attorneys for tenants who face eviction are proposed in a new bill that landlords say would decimate their industry.

“It’s our goal to balance the needs of the state but also to avoid crisis,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, to the Senate Ways & Means Committee on Feb. 16.

If passed, Senate Bill 5160 would ban landlords from ending a lease or refusing to renew a lease until two years after the end of a declared public health emergency on the basis of unpaid rent. This would not apply to landlords who live in the same space as their tenants, nor to landlords who plan on selling the rental property and also give their tenants at least 60 days’ notice.

It would also not protect tenants who break the law at the unit, permit waste or nuisance in the unit, or break their contract with their landlords.

The bill would cost about $24.8 million in the 2021-2023 fiscal biennium, with most costs falling on the shoulders of the Office of Civil Legal Aid, a state office responsible for administration and oversight of funds appropriated by the Legislature to provide civil legal aid services to low-income people.

Most landlords who testified during the bill’s hearing told the committee they feel the bill goes too far without offering financial help to property owners.

“We too support counsel representation for tenants, what we don’t support is a blanket two-year eviction moratorium,” said Cristina Dugoni, a real estate investor at Davis Investors and Management, LLC.

Sharon Galloway, landlord at the Forest Grove Mobile Home Park, LLC, told the committee she was opposed to the bill because it might enable people who can afford their rent but choose not to pay.

“This is a horrible financial blow and psychological blow to people like me who invested everything they had to survive,” Galloway said.

January data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that more than 200,000 residents in Washington had fallen behind on rent. Other census data shows a disproportionate number of these residents are people of color and from other vulnerable communities.

The law would also allow tenants to end their own lease without any added fees as long as they give at least a 20-day notice to their landlords that cites COVID-19 impact as their reason for termination. Landlords who violate this part of the law could face up to four and a half times the monthly rent of the property in a civil lawsuit, as well as court and attorney costs.

Also included for low-income renters would be readily available legal resources, including an eviction resolution pilot program. This program would provide contact information for the closest dispute resolution center, information for the county’s housing justice project or other available low-income housing services, and the contact information of the landlord and the landlord’s attorney, all of which must be given to tenants within two weeks of moving in to a property.

The Office of Civil Legal Aid would also have to provide an attorney for a tenant, and the state would pay attorney costs if funds are available. Michele Thomas, a lobbyist at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said 90 percent of landlords have lawyers, but only 10 percent of tenants do, and this disparity often is not by tenant choice.

“The right to an attorney is a basic human right that should have been codified in law a long time ago,” said Arianna Laureano, a Seattle renter who said she relied on the moratorium and would need it beyond its March 31 deadline.

In all, more than 2,000 signed in to testify during the bill’s hearing, with reactions evenly divided between those opposed and those in support.

The bill will have the chance to move on in the Legislature at its virtual executive session Feb. 18 in the Senate Ways & Means Committee.