Fewer renter protections after Monday, but help is available

Programs in Snohomish County can aid tenants behind on rent, but to avoid eviction, they must use them.

ARLINGTON — When Kristin Poyser’s tenant stopped paying rent, the Arlington property owner grew nervous. Under the state’s eviction moratorium, Poyser had few options.

Eventually, the tenant would owe Poyser the unpaid rent. But every month, Poyser’s own bills were adding up. The landlord contacted Volunteers of America, hoping her tenant qualified for rental assistance. However, Poyser couldn’t access the money unless her tenant applied for it.

That never happened.

“It’s not just the tenants that are having a hard time,” Poyser said. “Landlords are now the victims … because we’re being stolen from.”

Starting on Monday, the rules in Snohomish County will change for tenants like Poyser’s. Once the county Eviction Resolution Pilot Program is fully operational, the state’s eviction policy will no longer protect tenants who fell behind on rent and aren’t trying to access rental assistance.

Tenants must apply for available money and use the new program if they want to avoid eviction.

“We just want to help people figure out what they need to get their life back on track,” said LaDessa Croucher, who oversees the program at the Volunteers of America Dispute Resolution Center.

The Eviction Resolution Pilot Program aims to solve landlord-tenant disputes out of court. Landlords will be required to participate before they can access the court. Ideally, the program will help landlords recover unpaid rent without evicting a tenant.

Since last year, Volunteers of America has run an optional version of program. A major benefit was that mediators could steer people toward available money for rental assistance. Croucher, senior director for the Dispute Resolution Center, said money solved the issue in most cases.

“We know that stress is high,” Croucher said. “We’re just here to try to de-escalate and assure landlords and tenants who want to work together that there’s a way to work together.”

In a case like Poyser’s, in which the tenant didn’t respond, the landlord would ultimately be allowed to take legal action. Tenants have a limited number of days to respond to notices from the Volunteers of America Dispute Resolution Center.

At this point, however, the new rules won’t help Poyser. The lack of income from the rental property had a major impact on her. She has three mortgages and runs a small farm with her husband. The family had to butcher six farm animals earlier than planned to afford feed for the others.

“The people writing these bills and putting them into law didn’t think about all that,” Poyser said.

The farmer said she lost more than $30,000 from her rental property, which was supposed to be her retirement investment. Recently, she put the property up for sale.

Advocates of the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program, part of legislation passed earlier this year meant to protect renters and prevent evictions, hope the new rules will prevent cases like Poyser’s. When the Dispute Resolution Center attests the program is ready, which it expects to do Monday, it starts the clock on a series of notices landlords must now give to tenants who haven’t paid rent.

At this point, most eviction cases can already proceed, said Victoria Garcia, managing attorney for Snohomish County Legal Services’ Housing Justice Project. The state’s bridge eviction policy — which took effect when the federal eviction moratorium expired — extended protections for renters who fell behind on rent during the pandemic.

The purpose of the state bridge program was to give local governments and nonprofits more time to make new programs fully operational and distribute money.

Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, said the bridge was a positive move.

“It’s never a landlord’s goal to evict a tenant,” Waller said. “We want to make sure that we can obtain the resources that are available through the federal rental assistance.”

Once the eviction resolution program is operational, renters will have fewer protections. Not paying rent is no longer an option.

Renters who haven’t already applied for rental assistance will have two choices. The first is to resolve the issue out of court with the new Eviction Resolution Pilot Program. Or if a tenant doesn’t respond to notices from Volunteers of America, a landlord can proceed with an eviction.

Hopefully, Croucher said, tenants will respond to the notices. If tenants choose to use the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program (which is free), mediators can help prevent an eviction on a tenant’s record. Mediators can also connect people behind on rent with Volunteers of America’s housing navigators to help them apply for rental assistance.

If tenants don’t respond, the case can go to court.

“We know people are getting more anxious,” Croucher said. “We’re hearing from our rent assistance partners that people are getting edgy. We’re losing that flexibility of good spirit that came from the pandemic.”

Croucher said the state’s bridge eviction policy gave the Dispute Resolution Center more time to set up the program. But it also delayed the local start date by weeks.

Every time rules change at the state level, Croucher said, the Dispute Resolution Center has to review all of its documentation and training to make sure it follows the new rules.

“I look forward to just getting going,” Croucher said. “The waiting has been hard.”

Katie Hayes: katie.hayes@heraldnet.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.

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