Washington State Journal
An extension of the eviction moratorium for another two years and free lawyers for tenants at risk of eviction are proposed in a new bill that landlords say would decimate their industry.
“Our goal is to reconcile the needs of the state, but also to avoid crises,” said Senator Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, on February 16 before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.
If passed, Senate Draft 5160 would prohibit landlords from terminating a lease or refusing to renew a lease until two years after the end of a declared public health emergency due to unpaid rents. This does not apply to landlords who live in the same room as their tenants, nor to landlords who are planning to sell the rental property and give their tenants a notice period of at least 60 days. It also would not protect tenants who break the law in the unit, allow waste or harassment in the unit, or break their contract with their landlords. The bill would cost approximately $ 24.8 million in the 2021-23 biennium, with most of the cost falling on the shoulders of the Office of Civil Legal Assistance, a state agency responsible for administering and overseeing the civil law enforcement agency Legal aid provided is in charge of people on low incomes.
Most of the landlords who testified during the bill hearing told the committee that the bill was going too far without offering financial aid to owners.
“We also support tenant representation. What we do not support is a blanket two-year eviction moratorium,” said Cristina Dugoni, real estate investor at Davis Investors and Management, LLC.
Sharon Galloway, landlord for Forest Grove Mobile Home Park, LLC, told the committee she opposed the bill because it could allow people who can afford their rent but choose not to pay.
“This is a terrible financial and psychological blow to people like me who have invested everything to survive,” said Galloway.
January data from the US Census Bureau shows more than 200,000 Washington residents defaulted on rent. Other census data show that a disproportionately large number of these residents are colored people and from other vulnerable communities.
The law would also allow tenants to terminate their own lease without additional fees, as long as they give their landlords at least 20 days’ notice, citing the effects of COVID-19 as the reason for the termination. Landlords who break this part of the law could pay up to four and a half times the monthly rent of the property in a civil lawsuit, as well as court and attorney fees.
For low income tenants, readily available legal resources would also be included, including a pilot evacuation solution. This program would provide contact information for the nearest dispute settlement center, information for the county housing justice project or other available low-income housing services, and contact information for the landlord and landlord’s attorney, all of which must be provided to tenants within the district for two weeks moving into a property .
The Civil Legal Assistance Office would also have to provide an attorney for a tenant, and the state would pay legal fees if funds are available. Michele Thomas, lobbyist with the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said 90% of landlords have lawyers but only 10% of renters, and this inequality is often not due to tenant choice.
“The right to a lawyer is a fundamental human right that should have been codified long ago,” said Arianna Laureano, a Seattle tenant who relied on the moratorium and would need it beyond the March 31 deadline.
In total, more than 2,000 people signed up to testify during the law’s hearing, with reactions evenly divided between opponents and supporters. The bill will have the option to move into legislature at its virtual executive session on February 18 in the Senate Ways & Means Committee.
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