Jan. 23—If evictions were a tidal wave, rental assistance and tenant protections may have been the seawall.
Spokane County has not seen a surge in eviction filings following last year's expiration of a moratorium enacted by Gov. Jay Inslee in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than $50 million of rental assistance has poured into Spokane thanks to federal COVID-19 relief, keeping tenants afloat who would have otherwise faced eviction.
The state Legislature enacted new protections for tenants last year, ensuring indigent people have the right to an attorney when facing eviction and requiring landlords to at least offer mediation and a repayment plan before trying to boot a tenant.
Thus, the feared "tsunami" of evictions has not materialized in Spokane.
From Oct. 31, when Inslee lifted the moratorium, through the end of the year, 124 residential evictions were filed in Spokane County Superior Court. For the same two-month stretch in 2019, prior to the pandemic, there were 172 residential eviction cases filed.
And while that's welcome news to tenant advocates, fears persist. Tenant protections are permanent, but rental assistance is not. Tenant advocates worry that if rental assistance funding dries up — and rents continue to increase — tenant protections will not be enough to keep people in their homes.
And they question whether the new protections have been as effective in Spokane as elsewhere.
In Spokane County, 61 eviction cases were filed in November 2021. That's more than in King, Snohomish or Pierce Counties, all of which have more residents than Spokane.
But a direct comparison is challenging. Seattle has ordered its own moratorium on evictions that remains in place until at least Feb. 14.
Part of the issue in Spokane last November may have been that rental assistance payments were taking weeks, or even months, to process.
"Through our contractors and community-based organizations with which we are engaged, we are advised that the availability of rent assistance has been more transparent and accessible for tenants — which really did seem like the biggest issue in October (through) November," wrote Philippe Knabb, the Office of Civil Legal Aid's Eviction Defense Program Manager, in an email to The Spokesman-Review.
Meanwhile, landlord representatives have repeatedly argued that the moratorium forced many smaller landlords to sell their properties and leave the business altogether.
Spokane County has spent more than $24.8 million on rental assistance, which was distributed by the nonprofit Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners. It has $1.2 million left, but more money is expected to come, according to Nicole Bishop, a SNAP spokesperson.
The city of Spokane has committed nearly all of its $27 million in available rental assistance funds, officials warned earlier this month. Its rental assistance web page now cautions applicants that funds could soon be exhausted, though city leaders have pledged to work to find more funding.
Last year, a SNAP worker stopped into the Nine Mile Store, where Rachel Roberts works part time, and urged her to let customers know that rental assistance is available for those in need.
"I was like, 'Shoot, I'm behind on my rent,' " Roberts said.
Roberts was laid off from her job early in the pandemic. A short while later, her husband was hospitalized with a lung infection from which it took six months to recover. He went back to work for a month, but got sick again.
Unemployment benefits helped, but Roberts lost access to them when she turned down a job offer from her old employer, the YMCA.
"I declined work because I couldn't risk my husband getting sick and I didn't want to expose us to that many people," Roberts said.
With neither parent working and a son at their Nine Mile Falls home, the family fell behind. Roberts' landlord of seven years is great, she said, but "at some point, you know they're going to have to do something."
"It was just so stressful," Roberts said.
So when she learned of the rental assistance program, Roberts applied. It paid their past due rent and the next three months in advance.
That buffer helped when Roberts' son recently tested positive for COVID and the family had to quarantine, forcing her to miss time from work.
With rent paid in advance, they've been able to pay off other bills, and Roberts feels confident they'll be able to meet their obligations when rent payments resume.
"I'm so lucky," Roberts said.
The primary focus of the new state law is to prevent evictions before anyone ever steps into a courtroom.
In order to file for an eviction, a landlord first has to offer a tenant a chance at mediation through an Eviction Resolution Program and those in arrears a "reasonable repayment plan" that amounts to no more than one-third of the monthly rent.
The Eviction Resolution Program can help connect a tenant with rental assistance programs, staving off eviction and satisfying the debt owed to the landlord.
But should a case make it to court, the new law guarantees a person the right to an attorney, even if they can't afford one. Previously, only about 8% of tenants facing eviction were represented by a lawyer, according to a 2019 University of Washington study. The new law's backers argued that power imbalance favored landlords.
Now, landlords are forced to face a client with the right to an attorney.
"Some hearings are going for as long as four hours. Eviction defense really didn't exist like it does now," Julie Griffith, executive director of the Spokane County Bar Association, wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review.
Often, cases filed in court don't meet the standards for eviction under new state law.
"The Right to Counsel attorneys are able to challenge those evictions and preserve tenancy," Griffith said.
The Tenants Union of Washington State has poured its efforts into making tenants aware of these rights.
But many remain unaware that they have access to an attorney, according to Terri Anderson, Spokane director for the Tenants Union of Washington. She's warned officials that many tenants agree to leave rather than fight eviction.
Anderson also is concerned that landlords are simply choosing to evict not on the grounds of unpaid rent, but one of the other options still allowed under state law, like noncompliance with the lease's terms.
"If tenants don't show up to court, not only do they have a default judgment entered but they never know they had a right to a free attorney," Anderson said.
Knabb fears that landlords are substantially raising the rent to force out tenants.
"Our attorneys believe that the aggressive use of such notices is leading to a significant number of 'self-evictions' and defaults," Knabb said.