A House bill drafted by state Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, that would suspend Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium while establishing additional safety nets for tenants who are late on rent was the subject of competing testimony at a Thursday afternoon, Jan. 28, committee hearing.
Executives in the rental housing industry say the bill provides a clear path forward from the governor’s moratorium while covering the needs of tenants most impacted by the pandemic, though others disagree and say that the bill is too vague and strengthens the institutional power landlords hold over those they’re housing.
House Bill 1228, introduced Jan. 18, is currently in the House Committee on Housing, Human Services and Veterans. Two committee executive sessions are scheduled for Feb. 4 and 5 to consider the bill’s fate.
The legislation drafted by the 2nd Legislative District lawmaker so far has received bipartisan support, with more than a half-dozen House Democrats signing on to co-sponsor the bill.
“This crisis, what it’s told us is that people are suffering, they need help, and we’ve shown that we can do that,” said Barkis, a member of the Housing, Human Services and Veterans Committee. “The governor’s acted with his emergency proclamation, the CARES money has been distributed, stakeholders have worked and found great ways to bring forth new ideas and work within existing laws to help the people avoid this issue.”
This bill addresses the governor’s needs, Barkis said, which include establishing a widespread rent repayment plan, a mediation system, rental assistance and further tenant protections.
Despite what’s currently in the bill, Barkis said, he knows there’s more that can be done to improve this bill in a bipartisan fashion.
“There are things we can do on this bill to make it even better, to get it through the process,” he said.
In addition to suspending the moratorium, HB 1228 would also require that landlords provide tenants with unpaid rent an affidavit of COVID hardship, notice of early resolution program and options for repayment 30 days after the bill is signed into law; it would create the Emergency Rental Assistance Grant Program to assist utilize roughly $600 million in rental assistance; establish a program to facilitate resolution of nonpayment rent cases; and would increase the vacate notice period to 45 days.
Rep. Amy Walen, D-Kirland, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the bill is a well-designed plan that gets Washington state out of the moratorium.
“There’s no end in sight for this pandemic, but we should not govern by moratorium and this gives us a plan to help landlords and help tenants and keep people housed,” she said.
She noted that she would be interested in hearing further from those stakeholders against the bill.
More than 1,500 individuals were logged in on Thursday, Jan. 28, to observe the hearing. About a dozen individuals testified for and against the bill.
Tara Villalba, an elected member of the Bellingham Tenants Union, said she was strongly against HB 1228 because it would harm tenants more than it would help, allowing landlords to hastily evict poor tenants, many who she said are people of color, once the moratorium is up.
A payment plan not based on income, she said, would also increase the likelihood that delinquent tenants would default.
“My kids and I live in constant fear and anxiety that our landlords can evict us at any time or choose not to renew our lease, even if I pay my rent on time, even if I don’t cause damage to the property,” she said. “The relationship between a tenant and a landlord is completely out of balance … The law, as it exists today, is sorely inadequate to protect tenants. What we need to do is make it stronger.”
Edmund Witter, of the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, which provides free legal assistance to renters facing eviction in the area, said he’s against the bill because the bill, and specifically the affidavit clause, are too vague. He also noted that it was clear the sponsors didn’t work with tenant-rights groups.
A no-cause notice would also bypass many of the provisions in HB 1228, he said.
“There’s a lot of things that I think could be workable here, but right now this bill is not there and I think a lack of engagement with the other side really shows in this bill. Because, ultimately, this is a landlord relief bill disguised as a tenant protection,” he said.
Opponents of the bill also noted that the 30-day gap between when landlords would be required to serve delinquent tenants with an affidavit would be a “free-for-all” period for evictions, though Barkis replied to that by saying that would go against the very nature of the landlord-tenant relationship.
Michele Thomas, with the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said there are other bills that would bring more immediate and needed relief to tenants and bolster their protection, such as Senate Bill 5160, HB 1236 and HB 1277.
Sheri Druckman, vice president of Sares Regis Group, who voiced support for the bill, said it provides urgently-needed relief to renters and ensures that the financial support is going to those that need it most.
“Our residents owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in deferred rent,” she said. “This bill will provide the financial assistance urgently needed by renters and housing providers.”
Cory Brewer, vice president of residential operations of Windermere Property Management in Bellevue, who supports the bill, said that it fulfills three important goals: It identifies the need and delivers it, focuses on rental assistance, and is a collaborative approach that weighs the needs of both sides.
“I can’t emphasize enough that, as an industry, evictions are an absolute last resort,” he said. “We are just as concerned about behavior as we are about rent payment, and housing providers need to have some kind of leverage that will encourage residents to follow the rules of their lease agreements.
“We’re a lot more interested in getting money into the hands of a resident so they can pay their rent and avoid the talk of eviction altogether rather than funnel the money into an eviction attorney after the fact,” Brewer continued.