Part of new state landlord/tenant law
As state and federal eviction moratoriums created during the COVID-19 pandemic expire, organizations and governments are working to address an anticipated increase in court filings from landlords and requests for assistance from renters.
On Aug. 11, Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Chris Culp signed a standing order in Superior Court establishing an Eviction Resolution Pilot Program — modeled on similar programs pioneered by six counties starting last year — which is intended to keep the courts from being inundated with eviction proceedings and to encourage landlords and tenants to work things out through mediation.
Counties are allowed to create the programs under a new landlord-tenant law approved by the state legislature earlier this year.
It’s estimated that more than 220,000 households in the state are behind on rent and face eviction at the end of the moratorium, according to the order.
“It is in this court’s interest in managing its docket, facilitating just outcomes, and wisely utilizing scarce judicial resources to divert not-yet-filed cases away from the contested unlawful detainer process in court to an eviction resolution pilot program where there is a reasonable likelihood of a just resolution,” the Okanogan order reads.
In the Methow Valley, Room One’s One Stop Support Program often hears from renters in need of advice, information or assistance.
“Housing has been an issue for many years and I think with the added layer of COVID what we had seen in this past year … I think there’s a lot of fear, or frustration or uncertainty around the what ifs,” said Erin Flahive, One Stop Support Program Manager.
Fires over the summer also contributed to income losses in the valley, Flahive noted, and the Methow Valley has an ongoing shortage of rentals and affordable housing.
Since March 2020, Room One has provided rental assistance 138 times to local residents with limited income, who are homeless and working to find housing or who would be facing homelessness without assistance.
“During COVID, we had a large emergency fund stemming primarily from generous community donations — one of the many ways our community showed up for each other during challenging times,” Flahive said. “We also manage homeless-prevention funds from the county and Salvation Army emergency funds, which we’ll help people connect with if they are eligible.”
The federal eviction moratorium, originally put into place in September 2020, officially expired on July 31, 2021. However, on Aug. 3, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced a limited eviction moratorium lasting through Oct. 3, 2021, for renters in areas experiencing a COVID-19 surge.
According to the CDC, that moratorium covered 80% of counties in the United States and 90% of renters. The new moratorium covers people who have made efforts to obtain government assistance to pay for their rent, and who earn less than $99,000 per year or $198,000 as a couple, were unable to pay rent or a mortgage due to substantial loss of income, has made efforts to make timely partial payments and if eviction would leave them homeless, among other requirements.
The federal government has allocated $46.5 billion to state and local governments in Emergency Rental Assistance, according to the Biden Administration.
On June 24, 2021, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a “bridge” proclamation through Sept. 30, which was described as not an extension of the moratorium, but as interim regulations allowing for a transition to the state’s new tenant protections established in Senate Bill 5160, passed in April.
The bill made a number of changes to landlord-tenant law, particularly surrounding non-payment of rent during the eviction moratoriums. Among other provisions, the law requires that landlords work with tenants on repayment options before pursuing eviction.
“Beginning August 1, renters are expected to pay full rent, reduced rent negotiated with landlord, or actively seek rental assistance funding,” according to Inslee’s office. “Landlords may only evict a tenant if none of those actions are being taken but must offer the tenant a reasonable re-payment plan before beginning the eviction process. Tenants must also be provided, in writing, the services and support available.”
The law also states that landlords may not charge late fees and can’t hold it against a prospective renter that they couldn’t pay rent at some point between March 1, 2020 and Dec. 30, 2021.
“If you have remaining unpaid rent that accrued between March 1, 2020 and December 30, 2021, your landlord must offer you a reasonable schedule for repayment of the unpaid rent. For the repayment schedule to be considered reasonable, your monthly payments under the repayment plan cannot be more than one-third of your monthly rental charges at the time you were unable to pay,” according to the state Attorney General’s office.
In order to facilitate this communication and cooperation between landlords and tenants, the law adopts a court-based Eviction Resolution Pilot Program model operating since November 2020 in Clark, King, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane and Thurston counties.
The pilot programs, adopted by individual counties through standing orders such as Okanogan County Superior Court’s, require that landlords and tenants work together on a repayment plan through the county’s Dispute Resolution Center before landlords are allowed to file an unlawful detainer action to evict the tenant.
Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson will serve as the “procedural point person” to help implement the pilot program, according to the county’s order.
Finally, the law gives tenants a right to legal counsel in unlawful detainer proceedings if they are indigent, meaning they are on public assistance or make less than 200 % of the federal poverty level, similar to rights to legal counsel in criminal proceedings. In addition to these provisions, the Legislature set aside $658 million for rental assistance payments to tenants and landlords, according to Okanogan County’s order.
“Any additional access to legal support is a benefit, so people can get the information they need to feel informed,” Flahive said.
Clearing a backlog
One of the goals of the program is to keep people from becoming homeless in an ongoing pandemic that is still affecting the state and country’s economy.
Flahive said it’s difficult to quantify how many people will be in danger of eviction proceedings in the near term.
“We anticipate more calls for support with legal referrals for individuals navigating renter’s rights and also needing financial assistance,” she said. “We’ve been helping tenants understand the new bridge proclamation and directing them to information on their rights under the new laws.”
Another reason, according to Okanogan Superior Court’s order, is to prevent additional strain on an already overburdened court system.
In the past year and a half, Superior Court has had to curtail operations to comply with mandatory COVID-19 precautions and safety protocols, and to protect its staff and visitors. Most recently, all jury trials have been postponed until October due to rising COVID cases in the county.
“This has resulted in a continuing substantial backlog of civil, criminal, juvenile and child welfare matters,” the Okanogan order reads. “Given the administrative backlog this court is facing, the anticipated deluge of unlawful detainer filings … presents a continuing threat to the ability of this court to timely hear and fairly decide such cases consistent with statutory deadlines, due process and mandated procedures.”