EVERETT — When the county Dispute Resolution Center contacted Ramón Alvarado and his wife, the couple was two months behind on rent. Although they made partial payments each month, a pre-pandemic back surgery had left Alvarado unable to work.
Less than a month later, the couple learned they would receive enough money to cover their rent from May until August. They have lots of company. The case is one of more than 1,800 the Dispute Resolution Center’s Homelessness Prevention Team has processed since April.
With the June 30 end of the state eviction moratorium approaching, the team is still working through a more than 7,000-case backlog, which could represent 17,500 to 21,000 people. Those waiting for rental assistance fear they won’t benefit from new tenant protections without an extension of the moratorium.
“Our concern is that the eviction moratorium will lapse before we are able to get to the backlog of individuals who are already in our system,” said Lacey Harper, chief of staff for the Snohomish County executive, during a recent county council meeting. “We’re not asking for a lengthy extension, just long enough so that we are able to process all these individuals who we have the funding to help.”
The county approved a letter June 14 with a 3-2 vote asking the governor to extend the eviction moratorium.
Since mid-April, the Homelessness Prevention Team has processed 1,820 applications and distributed more than $14 million, said Galina Volchkova, who oversees the operation. The Volunteers of America housing director said they have received more than 9,000 requests for rental assistance.
“The fear in the community is up to the maximum,” said Volchkova, noting that each staffer carries more than 100 cases. “It is critical to deliver the message to the community that we are here, we are not running out of money. All we need is just a bit more time.”
The Legislature approved major tenant protections this year, and the Homelessness Prevention Team is still distributing more than $30 million in Snohomish County. With the expiration date of the eviction moratorium just weeks away, however, government officials and nonprofits say these protections won’t prevent mass evictions.
They need more time.
“We’re facing a scenario where the moratorium expires and the courts are going to be flooded with eviction lawsuits,” said Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “Tenants will not have the protections that they need to fight them.”
The pandemic has also caused uncertainty for many landlords who oppose an extension.
The Washington Landlord Association president argues that landlords have suffered enough. An extension of the eviction moratorium would only increase the backlog and push more mom-and-pop landlords out of the business, said Rob Trickler, who is an attorney.
“I’ve been dealing with mom-and-pop landlords for my entire practice, and they have been exceptionally hurt,” said Trickler, noting he received a flood of calls every time the moratorium was extended. “My entire practice has basically shifted to helping landlords get out of the business.”
Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, agrees. He noted landlords have continued to pay fees that come with property ownership, without guarantee that a tenant will pay rent.
“Our goal from the very beginning of this year, as we entered the legislative session, was to create a gradual off-ramp from the eviction moratorium,” Waller said. “Simply extending the status quo doesn’t do anything to help the tenant or the landlord recover from this pandemic. It just frankly kicks the can down the road.”
In Snohomish County, landlords cannot file an “unlawful detainer action” for 14-day pay or vacate notices for nonpayment of rent (the first step in an eviction case) without notifying the county’s Dispute Resolution Center. The center runs the Eviction Resolution Program, one of the new tenant protections.
“Ultimately, we are trying to prevent folks from ever having an eviction filing on their record,” said the Dispute Resolution Center’s senior director, LaDessa Croucher.
The Dispute Resolution Center then attempts to contact the tenant to resolve the case out of court. Snohomish County landlords need a signed certificate from the Dispute Resolution Center that essentially says they followed the rules.
Landlords must also offer tenants a reasonable repayment plan for rent owed during the pandemic. It’s one of the issues the Dispute Resolution Center can help mediate.
Even if a tenant’s application for rental assistance is in limbo, however, mediation can proceed. In Snohomish County, more than 7,000 people could soon be in this position.
While the Legislature approved right to counsel for indigent tenants in eviction lawsuits, the program will not be ready before the moratorium expires.
“Not only will people not have access to an attorney through the right-to-counsel program, they are going to have a very hard time getting the rental assistance they need to prevent an eviction,” said Thomas of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “We will see an increase in homelessness, despite these incredible protections the state Legislature has put in place.”
For tenants who do receive rental assistance in time, the money can have a major impact.
In Alvarado’s case, he can save enough money to see his daughter in California this summer. He is also planning to return to school and get the last credit he needs to complete an associate degree. After an on-the-job injury and a bureaucratic loophole left him unemployed and without benefits, he’s ready for a career change.
“I didn’t realize there was actually a program like this that exists,” said Alvarado, who stressed that he doesn’t believe in taking handouts from people.
Alvarado agreed to share his story because he believes there are many people who don’t know there is money available to help them. He also worries some people may avoid applying for money out of pride.
“You pay your taxes every year; I pay my taxes every year,” Alvarado said. “We all pay into this system, so the system is giving back.”
Alvarado’s situation is the best-case scenario for people seeking assistance. The application cleared well before the moratorium ended. But Volchkova, the housing director for Volunteers of America Western Washington, believes that many people who need help may not have reached out yet.
Once people begin receiving notices from their landlord, Volchkova said, they may be more proactive in calling 211 or searching for rental assistance.
“I’m assuming there is going to be another big wave coming our way before the moratorium expires or a few days before the expiration,” Volchkova said.
Tenants facing eviction will start receiving paper notices in July. Victoria Garcia, Snohomish County Legal Services managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project, noted a recently published online navigator tool from the Northwest Justice Project that can inform tenants of their legal rights and help them understand any notices they may receive.
It’s unclear how long it will take the Dispute Resolution Center to clear the backlog of applicants. The frontline Dispute Resolution Center workers, known as homelessness prevention navigators, are processing applications more quickly now but certainly won’t process remaining cases before July.
Volchkova said her team needs at least three more months, but even 30 days would help alleviate stress for many people waiting for rental assistance.
“Clients are just in panic that they are waiting for rental assistance and running out of time,” the housing director said. “The fear is destroying the well-being of people, because they don’t know where they are going to go.”
Katie Hayes: email@example.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.
Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.