Updated Jan. 5, 2021
On Dec. 31, 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee extended the eviction moratorium to March 31.
In a press release, his office said the most recent proclamation will: “incorporate the newly approved federal funding for rental assistance. Furthermore, the stated goal of these rental assistance programs is modified to provide a path for landlords, property owners, and property managers to initiate an application for rental assistance. The proclamation also clarifies that landlords and property owners may communicate with tenants in support of their applications for rental assistance.”
There’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot when you talk to people involved with Washington’s new Eviction Resolution Program (ERP): it’s a win-win-win.
It’s a win for landlords who can recoup lost earnings from renters. It’s a win for courts ill equipped to handle what is expected to be an unprecedented crush of unlawful detainer cases (evictions). More than anything, it’s a win for the public, giving vulnerable renters desperately needed support with some of their basic survival needs as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt daily life.
“We’re trying to just give people every chance to resolve this and not to fall into homelessness,” said LaDessa Croucher, senior director of Dispute Resolution Centers for Volunteers of America Western Washington.
Based in Everett, Croucher’s is one of a number of partnering agencies operating under the umbrella of the Eviction Resolution Program, in which six Washington counties— Clark, King, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane, and Thurston counties—have been approved to develop pilot programs for diverting eviction cases to out-of-court solutions.
Responding to a request by state court officials, the Superior Court Judges Association (SCJA) Unlawful Detainer Work Group worked with tenant and landlord representatives to develop the early recommendations for the Eviction Resolution Program, according to an Aug. 31 letter. At the time, officials were racing against an Oct. 15 deadline, after which the statewide moratorium on evictions would expire. Since it was first ordered on Feb. 29, the eviction moratorium end date has been a moving target, with repeated extensions as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. As of this writing, the moratorium is scheduled to expire Dec. 31, although some officials believe another extension is likely.
What hasn’t changed, however, are the needs of people under threat of being displaced from their housing for non-payment of rent.
The Seattle Times recently reported that roughly 171,000 Washington tenants are behind on rent, which is nearly equivalent to the 10-year total number of evictions filed between 2007-2017, according to data compiled by the University of Washington Evictions Project. The six pilot counties account for about 80 percent of the eviction actions in the state, said SCJA President and King County Superior Court Judge Judith Ramseyer.
“There’s a benefit to everybody in the middle of this serious economic crisis that I think all of us know is affecting so many communities,” Ramseyer said, noting the disproportionate impacts on communities that were already facing poverty, as well as communities of color.
The Eviction Resolution Program was officially put in place by order of the Washington Supreme Court on Sept. 9. It requires landlords in pilot counties to engage tenants before filing an eviction, which includes “direct negotiation, facilitated conciliation services, and, upon agreement of both parties, formal mediation provided by the participating Dispute Resolution Centers.”
Croucher, who helps operate the Snohomish County Dispute Resolution Center, said the rollout so far has been successful in many ways, but it’s also exposing the full extent of the potential need. In a normal year, the Dispute Resolution Center might provide $90,000 in rental assistance to families in the area. “We just pushed $18 million out the door in six months,” Croucher said. From November through mid-December, dispute resolution centers in the six pilot counties have received 812 referrals for the Eviction Resolution Program, opened 534 cases, and completed 56 cases.
Much of the on-the-ground effort has been through education, with centers like Croucher’s getting the word out to tenants and landlords that help is available. It’s still early as funding only became available in November. And Croucher explained that a call from one landlord can quickly turn into outreach efforts for an entire complex of 100 residents to provide information about the available resources.
“We’re seeing a lot of people who want to work together,” Croucher said. But the sheer volume of cases is going to require support.
How to Get Involved in Eviction Resolution
The emerging cases through the Eviction Resolution Program are showing that nonpayment of rent is often only a symptom of deeper conflicts between tenants and landlords. Effective mediation is proving key in these early stages to payment plans and other measures that will keep cases out of court and people housed.
“There is a lot of mythology going on in the rental community industry,” said Jim Bamberger, director of the Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid, which is one of the partners working on the Eviction Resolution Program. In one state workgroup, Bamberger said he spent at least three hours dispelling the myth of the so-called “elective nonpayer.”
In short, the issues are complex, touchy, and expertise is needed throughout.
Notably, housing justice projects will need more volunteer lawyers willing to take on case referrals. Such organizations have developed a wealth of training materials for interested legal professionals, Bamberger said.
Croucher echoed the call for support and urged any trained mediators in the state to reach out to their local dispute resolution center at Resolution Washington or the Washington Mediation Association.
Initial funding for the Eviction Resolution Program came through the federal CARES Act; Bamberger said program officials are looking for additional funding sources to sustain and expand the program. Other counties in the state, though not officially part of the Eviction Resolution Program, are following its model using community volunteers.
“Any attorney who is aware of a situation like this could be involved,” Ramseyer said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a housing justice attorney who is assigned to a tenant, just being knowledgeable about this program and connecting with it and getting clients whether that’s a landlord or a tenant involved in it to help out.”
Additionally, there is state legislation being drafted that, if ultimately introduced and adopted, would codify a process like that established by the Eviction Resolution Program, effectively ensuring that landlord-tenant issues divert to some form of negotiation before an eviction is filed in court.