It's going to get harder to evict people in WA. Will that reduce homelessness?

New eviction laws cap late fees and give tenants 14 days to pay back rent, among other protections.

Uli Fuamaila, 73, and his twin 8-year-old grandchildren Neamiah, right, and Naomi in their Federal Way home on June 3, 2019. Fuamaila raises the twins, along with his 2-year-old grandson. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Uli Fuamaila and his wife, Loto, moved from Lake Stevens to Federal Way a few years ago. She needed to be closer to her doctors, and he wanted to be closer to his job driving a paratransit bus for Metro’s Access program, based in Bellevue.

Though Fuamaila had already retired from his career in manufacturing, he had gone back to work to help pay for Loto’s mounting medical bills. Then, in 2015, Loto passed away. Fuamaila stayed in Federal Way and continued to drive for Metro.

Last August, he and his three grandchildren, a 2-year-old and 8-year-old twins, moved into a King County Housing Authority apartment building for moderate-income residents. He took on a roommate to help cover the rent, but she unexpectedly moved out in April, taking her half of the $1,775 monthly rent with her.

When Fuamaila went to pay his rent at the beginning of May, the building managers told him he owed the entirety of the May rent, as well as his roommate’s half of the April rent. The landlord told him to pay the full amount in three days or vacate the premises. When Fuamaila couldn’t come up with a month and a half’s rent on short notice, the landlord took him to court.

Washington’s eviction courts have long disadvantaged renters like Fuamaila. The state’s eviction laws leave very little wiggle room when rent has not been paid. Unless the landlord violated the terms of a lease or the tenant had the full rent and fees to pay back on their day in court, the tenant would be evicted.

On May 23, Fuamaila walked into the Maleng Regional Justice Center courthouse in Kent alongside his daughter Ono, who had come to support her dad as he faced eviction. But instead of appearing in a courtroom, they were directed to the Housing Justice Project. Run by the King County Bar Association, the Housing Justice Project provides pro bono representation to low-income tenants facing eviction in King County. The project's lawyers and legal assistants work out of both the justice center and the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle.

Fuamaila’s timing was fortunate. Edmund Witter, managing attorney of the Housing Justice Project, said that had Fuamaila been served his eviction notice a month earlier, “I have no doubt in my mind that they would have been evicted.”

The difference now is Home Base, a United Way project largely funded by the Seattle Mariners and Microsoft to help some tenants cover their back rent and late fees. Landlords are not obligated to take the late rent, but Witter said, “At the end of the day most landlords want their money.”

The Housing Justice Project has been assisting tenants in eviction court since 1998. But only since Home Base launched in April 2019 has the project been able to offer landlords money. Witter said before Home Base, the project was able to prevent evictions in only about 20 percent of its cases. The money has helped get it to about 66 percent. 

Home Base doesn’t have enough funding to cover every tenant’s costs, so the organization gives priority to people it believes have the greatest ability to pay rent on time moving forward, people with children in the home and people who can put some money down towards their debt.

By the time Fuamaila came to eviction court, he owed the landlord back rent, as well as $1,000 in late fees that had stacked up at $15 a day for two months. Though Fuamaila had only $1,500 on hand to pay towards the $4,852 he owed, Witter thought he had a compelling case for Home Base and made his pitch.

Things move slowly in eviction court, however. Fuamaila had to simply wait in purgatory in the halls outside the courtroom as lawyers negotiated and the Home Base staff sorted through the cases of 15 other tenants facing eviction that morning. It would be several hours before he would know if he could stay in his home or would be out in a week with the dark mark of eviction on his record.

Man and woman in court
Uli Fuamaila, 73, and his daughter Ono, 26, fill out paperwork at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent on May 23, 2019. They are working with the Housing Justice Project, which aims to prevent homelessness by providing free legal eviction defense to low-income tenants in King County. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

As the number of homeless residents soars in King County and across the state, housing and homelessness advocates have turned their attention to eviction reform as a piece of the solution. One prominent study, from the Seattle Women’s Commission, found that the vast majority of people evicted end up on the street, in shelters or living with friends and family.

“We have an affordable housing and homelessness crisis across the state,” said Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue. “I’m interested in preventing the problem from becoming worse. … For me success will be if we at a minimum significantly slow the rate of people dropping into homelessness for nonpayment of rent situations.”

Kuderer was the primary sponsor on a raft of reforms to the statewide Residential Landlord Tenant Act that kick in at the end of July and are meant to make it harder to evict people.

The Legislature’s sweeping changes include a measure that gives tenants significantly more time to come up with late rent, allows judges to apply more discretion in eviction proceedings, caps late fees and more. Tenant advocates and legislators say it’s an overdue change that will help keep low-income residents from becoming homeless. Landlords see it as onerous overregulation that will limit their ability to get rid of problem tenants and will drive “mom and pop” landlords out of the business.

The 2018 report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project looked at 1,218 eviction cases in Seattle. In more than 86 percent of those cases, eviction proceedings were started for nonpayment of rent. More than half of the tenants owed less than one month’s rent, with 20 individuals owing $100 or less. In at least one case, tenants were taken to court over $10 owed. The report found that only 12.5 percent of the people evicted moved directly into a new home. Half of the people they looked at either moved into transitional shelter or crashed with friends or family; 37.5 percent ended up on the streets.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that evictions are prevalent in Seattle, where housing costs have rocketed to record heights. But Seattleites are not alone in facing eviction. A recent study by University of Washington researchers found that, in 2017, 17,551 people across the state faced eviction. King County had the most that year, with 4,737 eviction cases. Pierce County had 3,219 and Snohomish County had 2,063. Even tiny Garfield County, with 2,300 residents, had five evictions on the books in 2017.  

“It’s definitely a statewide issue that impacts a lot of people,” said Dr. Tim Thomas, the UW researcher behind the eviction study. “Having broad-based legislation is really important. These reforms are a massive step forward.”

The centerpiece of the new regulations is an extension of the “pay or vacate” period. Currently, landlords wanting to evict sometime file a notice that gives the tenant three days to pay what is owed or move out. It’s up to the landlords to decide when to file, but they can do it as soon as the day after rent is due. If the tenant does not pay within that three-day period, the landlord files a summons to take the tenant to eviction court.

Under the new regulations, tenants will have 14 days to come up with the rent they owe.

“With just three days, people don’t have the time to get resources together to stay in their home,” said Kuderer. “Over half of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck and almost half of them can’t cobble together $400 for an emergency. With 14 days, people can get another paycheck, or get diversion resources, or borrow money from family and friends and pay.”

Washington’s new 14-day pay or vacate period is among the top-five longest for U.S. states, whereas the old three-day period put Washington in the bottom half of the U.S. The District of Columbia tops the list, giving tenants a full 30 days to come up with rent owed.

Close up of man
Uli Fuamaila, 73, in his Federal Way home on June 3, 2019. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Pay or vacate is only one aspect of Washington’s eviction law affected by reforms. Under the current system, for instance, a judge has no choice but to evict tenants if they did not pay rent. The new legislation provides judges with more leeway to offer payment plans to tenants or otherwise stop the eviction. The increased discretion is intended to provide a second chance to those tenants who fall behind on rent because of an unexpected life event, such as a medical bill, broken down car or lost job.

Recognizing that these greater allowances come with greater risks, the state is offering landlords access to a mitigation fund. If tenants default on their payment plan for back rent, the landlord can apply to the Department of Commerce to get reimbursed for the rent lost.

The new regulations also limit the monthly late fees landlords can charge and makes it so that the landlord can evict tenants only over missing rent, not because the tenant hasn’t paid late fees or other costs. Currently there are no limits on late fees.

“It’s a big deal,” said Witter. “We’re talking about someone getting charged $100 for the fact that the landlord had to put a piece of paper on the door. It’s one reason people fall behind, the unexpected fees that get tacked on.”

Landlords are not happy.

“I think it’s a disaster,” said Rob Trickler, an eviction attorney with All County Evictions and head of the Washington Landlord Association. “The mom-and-pop landlords are going to be selling and getting out of the business. … I have 7,000 members statewide in the association, and I can tell you the number of landlords who said they will not renew has doubled.”

Trickler said that in many cases landlords cannot afford to wait for rent payments because they need the money to pay for the mortgage on their rental property. Members are telling him that they plan to raise rents or security deposits to make up for the fact that late fees and other charges will now be capped. He also thinks that the stricter regulations will result in less leeway from landlords who might otherwise have tried to work with tenants outside of the legal process first. Instead, he expects landlords to file their pay-or-vacate notices as soon as they can.

“I think you’re going to see higher rents, lower inventory, higher security deposits and less cooperation,” Trickler said.

One of his biggest concerns is with the longer pay or vacate period. That, he said, will limit landlords’ ability to use nonpayment of rent as a way to evict problem tenants.

The Residential Landlord Tenant Act does contain a 10-day comply-or-vacate provision for tenants violating the terms of their lease, as well as allowing a three-day notice for nuisances, which includes major damage to the property, drug use and excessive noise. Trickler said in both forms of eviction, it’s too easy for judges to say tenants are attempting to comply and, therefore, cannot be evicted. “For example if the tenant has an unauthorized pet,” he explained. “They can say they’re looking for someone to take the pet and the court can say that’s substantial performance, even if there’s still a pet. The landlord is out of luck.”

Trickler said landlords often use pay or vacate as a way to evict people who aren’t complying with other terms of the lease. That will still be technically possible under the new regulations, but, “Now they have 11 more days to make the payment and, if they do pay, you still have a problem tenant on your hands,” he explained. “I think it’s going to take away landlords’ ability to protect good tenants from bad tenants.”

The Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHAWA), another landlord lobby, also takes issue with the new legislation, saying that focusing on evictions is the wrong priority for the state.

"We must urgently address the rising costs of scarce housing in Washington,” said Sean Martin, RHAWA executive director, in a statement. “Unfortunately, the new rules do nothing to help keep people in their homes and neighborhoods in the long-term. Policymakers should work with all stakeholders on solutions like providing housing vouchers that keep low-income families in their homes and public/private partnerships that build more housing that fits the needs of everyone."

Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, agrees that rising housing costs are a major problem in the state, but argues that’s exactly why eviction reform is so essential. “The fact that housing costs are going up for renters means people have less wiggle room when they’re hit with financial crisis or rent goes up again.”

Uli Fuamaila is evidence of that. He said between his current job and the Social Security he earns from his first career, he has enough to cover his rent, even without the help of a roommate. But he was unprepared for his rent to essentially double without notice when the roommate left town.

That Fuamaila can cover rent moving forward, coupled with the fact that he cares for his grandkids, was compelling enough for the caseworkers at Home Base. They agreed to cover the gap between the back rent and late fees, and the $1,500 he could pay. Witter negotiated with the landlord’s lawyer to knock $375 from the late fees and remove the eviction from Fuamaila’s record, if he can pay rent on time for three months.

Fuamaila simply cracked a smile and said, “This is good.”

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