King County reworks aid after some renters fall through the cracks

As the county considers extending the pandemic-era emergency rent relief program, advocates hope poor communication and red tape are a thing of the past.

a women sits in her apartment in kent

Christine Myers in her apartment in Kent on June 24, 2022. Myers applied for the King County emergency rental assistance program but was rejected. The program made an error and said she made too much money to receive assistance. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Christine Myers had never missed a rent payment before the world shut down in March 2020. But the Kent grandmother drives Uber and Lyft for a living, and the pandemic cratered her income. She soon fell behind on rent at the apartment she shares with her husband and granddaughter.

When Myers heard about King County’s emergency rental assistance program in the summer of 2021, she applied right away. She was told she qualified. Because there was never enough money in the program to meet the need, Myers entered a lottery along with other applicants, hoping to get picked at random to receive assistance.

Then, she waited. And waited. And waited some more.

The apartment had its share of problems — broken appliances, drug dealers across the street — but the alternative was much worse. “It’s the only place I can afford,” Myers said. “I’ve lived here for seven years, and I don’t want to be homeless.”

The state eviction moratorium meant her landlord could not evict her over the back rent she owed. But the stress of a five-figure debt took its toll. In October, Myers crashed her car, something she blames on the distraction of having the threat of eviction hanging over her head.

In January of this year, a case manager from the emergency rental assistance program called her and asked a few questions about her income. Her hopes were up.

Myers said she checked her email religiously, but never heard back from King County. It turned out her request for rent relief had been denied. The case manager had overstated their household income, disqualifying them for help. The program is targeted at lower-income renters earning 50% or less of the area median income, which is $47,800 for a two-person household.

Myers learned about her denial from her apartment’s building manager. She called the rental assistance program and was told she needed a copy of the denial letter in order to appeal. When she said she never received the letter, they wouldn’t send her a new copy.

She turned to the Housing Justice Project to file a formal grievance. Operated by the King County Bar Association, the nonprofit group provides pro bono services to low-income renters in eviction court. It has also contracted with King County to manage the grievance process for the rental assistance program.

Myers is one of more than 200 people who have filed formal grievances about emergency rental assistance denials through the Housing Justice Project. That number doesn’t include people who contacted King County directly or the ones who simply never followed up about their bad experiences.

All told, that’s quite small compared with the nearly 38,000 households that received a combined $332.6 million in rental assistance since the program started in August 2020. But it’s still worth understanding what went wrong — some say an excess of subcontractors led to inequitable service for some applicants — and how the program has since been restructured. The county continues to distribute the last of its rental assistance money and is looking ahead to the possibility of a permanent program.

The Housing Justice Project eventually helped Myers get a new copy of her denial letter, but her case manager told her she had missed the two-week window to appeal and there was nothing they could do.

“I literally begged her,” Myers said. “And they wouldn’t help. It was really disheartening. She didn’t care that I was going to be homeless. She just pretty much said no.”

Poor communication, red tape

Jake Phillips leads the grievance work for the Housing Justice Project. He said the job is about doing anything possible to overturn an applicant’s denial. People come to him with a wide variety of issues. There are those who, like Myers, say they never got a denial email. Others say their landlords refused to participate in the program. In some cases, the county incorrectly flagged an application as fraudulent, such as the time a landlord and tenant had the same last name. Phillips said he had to help the tenant prove they were actually unrelated.

Sometimes applicants did not follow all the rules of the program, and there’s nothing the Housing Justice Project can do. For example, because the program is meant to keep people in their homes, applicants are disqualified if they move out before receiving their rental assistance, even if they otherwise qualified.

That’s what happened to Eamonn Lindsey, a Seattle renter who worked in fast food when the pandemic first hit. With his work hours slashed, he couldn’t keep up on rent. Then his two roommates stopped paying. He ended up on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in rental debt.

This story is a part of Crosscut’s WA Recovery Watch, an investigative project tracking federal dollars in Washington state.

Lindsey said he thought he was in the clear when he heard his application for rental assistance had been approved, and he moved out of the apartment he couldn’t afford. He thought he was doing the right thing and instead lost his chance for help, leaving him with crushing debt. He spent several months homeless, mostly living in a shelter before he could scrape together enough money doing gig work deliveries to move into “quite possibly the worst building in the University District.”

“The people who fall through the cracks don't really seem to matter that much,” said Lindsey. “And there are a lot of people falling through the cracks right now.”

Phillips said the most common complaint involves poor communication from the program’s administrators. Tenants would apply for help then enter a black hole about the status of their application.

A reader initiated this story by contacting Crosscut’s Washington Recovery Watch team to describe her repeated attempts to get clear help or answers from the program. As her eviction date neared, she encountered a feedback loop of auto-reply assurances that things were happening in the back end and to just sit tight.

Phillips said part of the problem with communication stemmed from the system of community-based subcontractors King County used to administer the rental assistance program. The county contracted with more than 70 nonprofit community groups to help do outreach and administer rent relief.

Officials hoped to improve equitable access to the program for low-income communities of color and immigrants by working with groups already operating in those communities. While Phillips said he thinks there’s value in the model, he also saw inconsistent performance from the community-based organizations.

“The way it was implemented, there wasn’t accountability and there were some underperformers in the mix,” he explained. “Not every applicant was given the same experience. Some organizations were super-communicative. Others seemed to not have done a good enough job being upfront about communicating with tenants.”

Leo Flor, director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services, acknowledged the communication problem and blamed both the scale of the program and the speed with which the county had to create it from scratch.

“It became DCHS’s largest client-serving program overnight,”  he said.

But the county stands by the community-based subcontractor model, arguing that the application assistance, door-knocking and follow-up that nonprofits provided within their communities resulted in the program reaching people disproportionately impacted by eviction. About 75% of emergency rent recipients were Black, Indigenous or other people of color, and 58% were female heads of households. Studies have found Black and Latino renters are evicted far more than white renters, and women are evicted far more than men, both in King County and nationally.

Christine Myers on her phone in her apartment in Kent on June 24, 2022. She ended up being able to reapply with the help of the Housing Justice Project and, in a stroke of luck, got the rent assistance she needed to stay in her apartment. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

A revised system

In May, King County restructured the emergency rental assistance program. United Way of King County, which has been on contract since the beginning, is now in charge of managing the program including leading on grievances. The county still contracts with the Housing Justice Project to provide pro bono legal services in eviction court. Before the pandemic, United Way and the Housing Justice Project worked together on a program called Home Base to provide eviction services and rent relief on a much smaller scale.

Twenty-four service groups remain on contract with the county to provide case management and other assistance. But, explained Jake Janesch, United Way’s rental assistance program manager, all of the community groups now work directly with United Way. In the previous iteration of the program, some smaller groups reported to larger “hub” contractors, which in turn reported to the county, and some just reported directly to the county. The county also did direct administration of rent assistance.

With fewer moving pieces, Janesch said, the new system should create fewer opportunities for people to fall through the cracks.

Janesch said United Way is also working to improve some of the problems applicants cited in past grievances. He said when United Way took over in May, it surveyed tenants and landlords to see what common issues were arising.

“A lot came down to communication and folks feeling like people hadn’t heard back in days or weeks or months,” he said. “Now that we’re the ones running the program, I put a lot of effort into ramping up customer service, so people feel heard and validated and have a better idea of response time.”

United Way had hired 12 people over the past year and a half to work on rental assistance. Janesch said 10 of them specialize in customer service to more quickly respond to applicants’ questions and grievances.

Edmund Witter, managing attorney of the Housing Justice Project, would prefer to see the entire program go in-house at King County rather than be contracted out among nonprofits (a stance he recognizes as ironic, coming from a nonprofit that contracts with King County).

“If we have one government agency that’s in charge, that’s accountable, that is performing consistently across the board by law and constitutional right, we’re going to see a lot more equitable service for tenants,” Witter said.

Emergency rental assistance’s future

King County has about $40 million in federal rental assistance money left, which is expected to last until middle to late August. There’s hope that the county could get more money from the U.S. Treasury after the federal government takes back emergency rental assistance funding from states and counties that haven’t yet used it all.

Eventually, though, the federal funding will run out. Advocates and program administrators alike want to keep a King County rental assistance program going in some form after it does, likely administered by United Way and other subcontracted community groups.

There would be no shortage of applicants. Tens of thousands of people sought help through the rental assistance program, but didn’t qualify. Some couldn’t get their landlord on board or simply weren’t chosen in the lottery. Many will face eviction and carry their rental debt without help.

But eviction was a problem for thousands of low-income renters in King County each year before the pandemic — often for just a few hundred dollars they owed — and will continue to be after it ends.

“We have suppressed that temporarily through the rental assistance program,” said Flor of the county Department of Community and Health Services. “Now we have the opportunity to not let it restore to those levels of evictions.”

Flor said a future program would likely be much smaller than the one created during the pandemic, because the scale of potential evictions on a weekly basis would be in the hundreds of applicants rather than in the thousands.

How King County will fund a future program is an open question. One potential source is a new emergency rental assistance program created by the Legislature in 2021. By charging a higher fee for filing real estate recording documents, the state expects to raise $146 million, $88 million of which would go toward rental assistance to prevent evictions.

That’s $88 million statewide, meaning King County would get only a small slice of the pie, very little compared with the hundreds of millions it has disbursed during the pandemic.

Find tools and resources in Crosscut’s Follow the Funds guide to track down federal recovery spending in your community.

Still, affordable housing advocates see a role for rental assistance. As does the Washington Multifamily Housing Association, which said it supports the idea of a permanent program.

Washington Low Income Housing Alliance policy director Michele Thomas noted, however, that spending on rent relief must be balanced with spending on improving baseline conditions for low-income renters.

“If you’re responding to an emergency situation and doing it in an environment of not limiting rising rents, you have to ask if this is the most efficient use of resources for housing and homelessness,” she said. “And I think the answer is always no.”

She argued that investing in more affordable housing is less expensive in the long run than responding to the crisis at the point of someone facing eviction. Rent relief proponents similarly argue, however, that providing emergency rent relief to prevent eviction is much less expensive than someone entering the homeless system.

“We need subsidized affordable housing. We need a rental assistance program. And we need more rent regulation,” Thomas said. “Until we do that, the ability to use rental assistance to save people’s homes will be overly expensive and serve far too few people.”

A not quite fairy-tale ending

The Housing Justice Project helped Myers reapply for rental assistance, but she didn’t have high hopes. In May, she heard back from her case manager: Her second application had been approved and she would be able to stay in her apartment.

“I’m very grateful. I’m very blessed. I can’t express how happy I am right now,” Myers said. “I stressed morning, evening, night. I haven’t been sleeping. I wake up in the middle of the night worried I’m going to lose my home. Not just for me but my granddaughter, who lives with me. I constantly feared being homeless.”

Myers said her apartment is far from a dream situation. She still worries about drug dealers across the street. The building manager is slow about fixing problems with broken appliances, and the water shuts off at random times. But it’s her home and she doesn’t know where she would’ve been able to afford to go if she were evicted.

Myers said she’s resilient and unwilling to quit until all options are exhausted. She wants to see King County fix its emergency rental assistance program so that it doesn’t require such resilience.

“The stress I’ve been through has probably taken a few years off my life,” Myers said. “I’m the type of person who will keep trying and keep trying until there’s no way to fix it anymore. I’m sure there are people that aren’t like me and just gave up, had to move or got evicted. For people who aren’t stubborn like me, I’m worried about them. That’s really sad.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Myers' last name.

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