With federal and state eviction moratoriums due to expire at the end of December, renters and landlords are feeling increasing pressure 10 months into the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 171,000 Washington households are behind on rent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As tenants fall behind, landlords throughout the state have sued Gov. Jay Inslee over the eviction ban in recent weeks, citing concerns over unmanageable taxes, mortgages and maintenance costs and tenants allegedly electing not to pay rent.
In Yakima, the Washington Business Properties Association took legal action against the state on behalf of four Yakima property owners through a federal lawsuit. Enrique Jevons of Jevons Properties LLC in Yakima, one of the plaintiffs who owns over 630 Yakima County properties, says he has tenants months behind in rent, but cannot evict them because of the governor’s orders.
“There are some people who are employed and who have not been paying. I have tenants buying cars and going on vacation,” Jevons said. “That’s not the intent of the moratorium. I now have to pay property taxes, mortgage, utilities, insurance, repairs, and other expenses regardless of whether individuals pay, ” Jevons said.
“From the lawsuit, I want to set some precedent going forward that legal contracts can’t be made illegal and unenforceable by the state,” he added.
But Scott Crain, a Northwest Justice Project attorney, says that few people are refusing to pay by choice, and that he doesn’t believe there is merit to challenging the state over the ban.
“The purpose of the moratorium is to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, so it’s consistent with the state’s response to the pandemic,” he said. “Landlords are saying that there are some folks who can pay rent but don’t want to pay, and I think it’s important to think about whether we are going to throw out the whole moratorium that can affect hundreds of thousands of renters around the state over one guy who is not paying rent.”
The state responded to the Washington Business Properties Association lawsuit in a legal brief, saying that the moratorium is a lawful exercise of the governor’s emergency powers in dealing with an unprecedented state, national and international crisis.
The order doesn’t relieve a renter from their obligation to pay rent or get rid of past-due rent. Some evictions, such as those for property damage, can still happen.
Many are looking for a compromise tailored to the needs of tenants and landlords.
Rob Trickler, president of the Washington Landlord Association, said he’s been disheartened by Inslee’s handling of the complaints leveraged by property owners.
“Inslee has so far ignored our attempts and requests for a more equitable solution. There has been no relief or protections for landlords, and many are now facing foreclosures and bankruptcy,” Trickler said.
Renters are growing increasingly worried as the end of the moratorium looms. Consuelo Rodriguez, a staff member at La Casa Hogar in Yakima working closely with families affected by COVID-19, said many residents have spoken to her anonymously about their struggles.
“Many families are in an unstable, insecure situation and don’t know what is going to happen — they feel a huge amount of pressure. There are many people in need in this county, and they need help from the government. We need many more resources to deal with the situation than we have right now,” Rodriguez said.
She also highlighted the challenges for Yakima’s undocumented residents, who she said have been doubly affected by the financial hardship of the pandemic.
“Our undocumented residents didn’t receive a stimulus check and don’t receive unemployment benefits,” she noted.
If the moratorium ends in December, many renters will find themselves in limbo as they face mounting debt in a county that was already struggling with a prepandemic affordable housing crisis.
Many local organizations are stepping up to the plate to provide assistance for renters. The Salvation Army, Yakima Neighborhood Health, Community Action Center, OIC, La Casa Hogar, Nuestra Casa, and Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services are some of the agencies that have provided assistance to renters in the Yakima area during the pandemic.
Quinn Dalan, executive director at Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services, is trying to get the word out about resources for tenants.
“We are trying to encourage tenants to create payment plans and to pay whatever they can if they are able to pay. The earlier people do that the better because the moratorium will end at some point in time, and if you are behind $10,000 and you work a minimum wage job, that debt will live with you for a long time,” Dalan said.
Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services is able to point tenants to resources for financial assistance or go to court on their behalf, and urges residents to contact staff as early as possible.
Some landlords do not anticipate a huge wave of evictions.
“The ideal situation for me is that the moratorium would end and that tenants receive a grant or loan from the state. I want tenants to stay in place because evictions are expensive, and I am willing to work with them by entering into payment arrangements tailored to each tenant,” Enrique Jevons said.