By Sydney Brownstone / The Seattle Times
OLYMPIA — Seeking to help Washingtonians cope with the economic shutdown amid the new coronavirus, Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday extended and expanded his moratorium on evictions and imposed a new freeze on increases of residential rents.
The temporary freeze on some rent increases opens a new front in government’s response to an economy devastated by state officials’ shutdown of society to halt the outbreak of COVID-19.
The temporary statewide ban on evictions — which Inslee first announced last month — will be extended an additional seven weeks, according to the governor, and will include a slew of new measures aimed at protecting more tenants.
The action includes a ban on residential rent increases during the public-health emergency. Commercial rent increases also will be prohibited, Inslee said, if the commercial tenant has been impacted by the coronavirus.
The state Attorney General’s Office told The Seattle Times earlier this week that it had received complaints of landlords sending out rent increases during the pandemic, which could, under certain circumstances, violate state law.
“Raising rent on vulnerable tenants during a public-health emergency is clearly morally wrong,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson told The Seattle Times in a statement. “More than that, it may violate state law, including the Residential Landlord Tenant Act and Consumer Protection Act. My office will be looking closely at these complaints.”
The extended eviction moratorium will also expand to cover people in transitional housing, such as motels and Airbnbs, on public camping grounds and mobile-home owners on leased lots.
Additionally, the order prohibits landlords from threatening to add late fees or charges for non-payment, as well as charge rent for housing where a tenant’s access to the unit was prevented by COVID-19. The latter includes seasonal and college housing in which the tenants weren’t able to stay in the unit as a result of the crisis.
Under the new order, landlords cannot treat pandemic-related unpaid rent, including unpaid rent from the beginning of the outbreak, like a regular debt that can be enforced by collectors or result in an eviction. Instead, landlords would first have to offer a reasonable repayment plan, according to the order.
“People are going to feel better about staying home, and I think this will ultimately help us fight the virus,” Xochitl Maykovich, political director for the Washington Community Action Network, said. “I hope the Legislature is thinking about how we can put these policies into law permanently. It shouldn’t just be for COVID-19, because there are plenty of situations where people have emergencies and can’t pay rent.”
The order, however, drew criticism from advocates for landlords.
“I’m very disappointed in the steps the governor is taking right now,” said Rep. Andrew Barkis, a Republican from Olympia who works in property management. Barkis said he had been working for weeks with stakeholders to find consensus on an approach to help renters, like by providing payment assistance.
But with the governor’s order, “What’s happening is punitive, this is directly going to say property owners can’t do these different things,” said Barkis. “And it puts us in a very precarious situation.”
Meanwhile, some landlord interest groups praised much of the governor’s order, including the new statewide ban on late fees. But they said it didn’t go far enough to protect tenants and landlords — who will still owe rent and mortgage payments once the moratorium expires. Subsidies are needed, they say, in addition to the moratorium.
“We urgently need to focus efforts on rental assistance for those impacted by COVID-19 to ensure people don’t fall into deep debt over missed rent and mortgage payments once the emergency orders end,” Brett Waller of the Washington Multifamily Housing Association, which represents large landlords, said in a statement.
Inslee’s order came as Washingtonians continue to shoulder the grim brunt of the economic slowdown.
On Thursday, the state reported 143,241 new initial claims for unemployment insurance for the week that ended April 11.
Those figures bring the total number of initial and recurring unemployment claims to 585,983. That is almost twice the peak the state saw during the Great Recession — and suggests Washington’s unemployment rate could be as high as 15%.
Seattle Times staff reporter Katherine Khashimova Long contributed to this report.
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