A rental sign seen in Everett on May 23. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

A rental sign seen in Everett on May 23. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Eviction moratorium uncertainty means preparing for anything

Landlords and housing advocates work to keep a roof over the heads of Snohomish County’s renters.

EVERETT — With a statewide moratorium on evictions set to expire on Aug. 2, housing uncertainty is rampant across Snohomish County.

For now, notices won’t be tacked to tenants’ doors and no one will be ousted from their home, but Snohomish County housing advocates and landlords are working to stay ahead of the curve.

“Under COVID, we are going to see people that we’ve never seen before,” said LaDessa Croucher, senior director of the Dispute Resolution Center, a wide-ranging conflict mediation service run through Volunteers of America (VOA). “There are going to be people at all levels of income whose income has suddenly stopped and these may be people who are accessing our system for the first time.”

Prevention services in Snohomish County begin with a call to 2-1-1. North Sound 2-1-1 handles client intake, evaluating a caller’s eligibility for services and connecting them to available resources.

According to Lisa Hull, the program’s manager, since the pandemic hit, housing-related referrals by the 2-1-1 line have risen each month as people battle to make rent, pay utilities or put food on the table. She said nearly 70% of clients connected to resources in May had to do with housing insecurity.

While evictions are prohibited, 2-1-1 has tweaked its services for those at risk, including beginning a proactive approach that will send outreach counselors into the community, as opposed to waiting for individuals to reach out to 2-1-1.

“Right now, things are a moving target,” Hull said in June, as her office waits to see if the eviction moratorium may be extended. “We just play things day by day and see what resources are available and see how we can best serve our community.”

Programs through the VOA received a boost in May when the Snohomish County Council directed $10 million in CARES Act relief funding to aid human social services, much of which will be for housing services including homelessness prevention. The relief funds are a separate pot of money for those who meet coronavirus-related criteria, like households with populations vulnerable to the disease or those who faced pandemic-induced job loss.

“Our local resources, some of them have become extremely taxed,” Hull said. The CARES Act funding “… will allow a wider pool of individuals or households to apply for assistance.”

The bind for landlords

Lewis Burdette offers housing for a unique niche of people. He is the landlord for about a dozen registered sex-offenders in Everett.

While the tenants may be less than typical, the problems he faces are the same as any landlord during a pandemic. Rent hasn’t been paid, behavior is worse than usual, and with the eviction moratorium in place there is no action that can be taken.

For the first time, Burdette has connected with local housing navigation resources. He’s worked with one tenant to settle back-rent, courtesy of housing assistance through VOA programs.

However, Burdette said not all tenants have been as cooperative. Two renters have unpaid dues dating back prior to the eviction ban.

“Somehow the moratorium on evictions to them equated to they don’t have to pay their rent,” he said.

Realistically, Burdette said there is zero chance he receives any back rent, instead the day of reckoning has been put off. He said the one size fits all moratorium is shielding tenants from the consequences of not paying rent.

According to Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, an advocacy group for about 1,700 properties in Washington, Burdette isn’t alone. He said some members have outstanding rent balances in the $3 million range from their properties.

In a landscape where 91 cents of every dollar of rent goes toward building operating expenses and nine cents is income, Waller said the unpaid rent adds up fast.

“When landlords are unable to collect rent, that detrimentally affects their ability to pay the mortgage, to pay the taxes, their own employees and the other ongoing costs that are required to operate the property,” he said.

HNN Communities operates 7,500 units of affordable housing in Washington state including 10 complexes in Snohomish County. Alison Dean, director of operations and strategy, said it’s challenging to watch as residents choose between paying rent and eating.

She said the company facilitates flexible rent payment plans, connects tenants to applicable community resources like the VOA, and has cut its own expenses to mitigate costs.

“We certainly as landlords are not in the business of evicting people, we are in the business of housing people,” Dean said.

Waller said rental assistance from the state and national level is a necessity moving forward. He advocates for more unallocated Washington CARES Act funding to be used in supporting renters and for a billion-dollar federal assistance fund to be created.

At the end of June, Gov. Jay Inslee allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act and emergency funds for rental assistance that will send payments directly to landlords for low-income, at-risk renters.

Unpaid rent isn’t the only problem facing property owners, the eviction moratorium also prevents landlords from addressing behavior-related issues with tenants.

“There are some of us who can’t wait until August 2,” said Heidi Anderson, resident relations manager with HNN Communities.

She said sensitivities are high and because there is little a landlord can do in terms of enforcement, grievances with noise and littering have escalated more than they normally would.

Once the moratorium ends, Anderson said the company won’t hold off to begin evicting.

“We will address those issues as soon as we can for the health and safety of the majority of our residents,” she said.

Help is a call away

At the Dispute Resolution Center, Croucher said two-thirds of the approximately 1,200 cases resolved annually are behavioral, with the other third requiring some sort of rental assistance. According to Croucher, when both the landlord and tenant are open to mediation, the dispute is solved 90% of the time.

“Ultimately, if the landlord-tenant relationship works for both people that is the long-term solution that everyone is happy with, because rent gets paid on time and people are satisfied,” Croucher said.

Advocates on both sides say communication and flexibility are instrumental as landlords and tenants navigate the uncertainty. Renters are encouraged to notify property-owners ahead of time if they cannot make payments, and landlords are asked to consider creative solutions for repayment, like spreading one month’s rent out across the next six or 10 months.

Hull said anxiety, stigma or a fear that someone else may need the assistance more have kept people from accessing resources available to them. While she appreciates people thinking of others, Hull said 2-1-1 wants to connect individuals to resources they need.

“If you do need help ask for it and we will help where we can,” she said.

In anticipation of what may be to come, the Dispute Resolution Center has doubled its staffing to deliver resources and arbitration.

Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; idavisleonard@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.

Ian Davis-Leonard reports on working class issues through Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. To support Ian’s work at The Daily Herald with a tax-deductible donation, go to www.heraldnet.com/support.

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