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Concerns linger as eviction reform bills advance in Olympia

(AP)

While much of Washington state’s homeless population is in Seattle, it has surged statewide in recent years. Washington now has one of the largest homeless populations in the nation. That has state lawmakers considering dozens of eviction reform bills this session to address the crisis.

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Bills include everything from boosting the supply of affordable housing, to new rules on tiny houses, housing assistance, and more.

One major theme — helping people from becoming homeless in the first place. That has some lawmakers pushing eviction reform bills, including several that passed this last week. Seattle Democratic Representative Nicole Macri says the state is facing a true eviction crisis.

“I can think of no other instance where somebody can lose their home so quickly,” Macri said on the House floor Tuesday night ahead of a vote on her bill, HB 1453. “It’s important to note that nine out of 10 evictions in our state are related to non-payment of rent. In a recent study in Washington state we found that when folks have been evicted, only close to 10 percent of them have been able to find another home. Meaning that eviction is directly related to the crisis of homelessness that we’re experiencing.”

Among other things, HB 1453 extends the number of days a tenant has to pay or vacate after failing to pay rent from the current three days to 14 days. It passed the House 54-44 with strong opposition from most Republicans.

Macri researched the issue before session, including sitting in on eviction court proceedings. She found that over half of all evictions occurred for nonpayment of rent for one month or less. This includes dozens for under $100 and at least one for just $10. She argues that extending the the late payment deadline could allow for a paycheck to come in, or for tenants to find additional money so they don’t end up on the street.

Brett Waller with the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, a landlord lobbying group, warns extending to 14 days is going to backfire on tenants.

“That three days right now also provides the opportunity, right now, for you as the tenant to go to the landlord and say ‘Hey, I know I’m late on my rent, but I’m getting paid on Friday and you’re the first person I’m going to pay’ and gives you the opportunity to get this taken care of before the forced service of a formal notice to pay or vacate, which really starts the clock ticking,” Waller explained.

“With 14 days, landlords are simply going to remove that grace period so rent is due on the 1st – it’s late on the 2nd,” Waller added, arguing that could exacerbate the homeless crisis.

Macri’s bill allows judicial discretion where the court could order landlords to set up payment plans.

On Saturday, the Senate took up a similar bill — SB 5600 — from Eastside Democratic Senator Patty Kuderer that passed 31-15. Kuderer’s bill also extends the time to pay or vacate to 14 days after defaulting on rent.

Republicans offered amendments to change that to four or 10 days, but both failed.

“In testimony, and in negotiations, we’ve heard comprehensively that it was our inflexible eviction laws that were a major source of housing instability around our state – both east and west – and that if we’re serious about dealing with long-term prevention we have to address this primary driver of homelessness,” Kuderer said ahead of the vote.

But again, many Republicans voiced concerns.

“Nobody wants somebody living in their car,” said Republican Senator Phil Fortunato. “I don’t want those people living in their car. Nobody wants people living in tents along the highway, under bridges and things like that.”

But Fortunato said the solution is more affordable housing, especially from the private sector.

Republican Senator Hans Zeiger was a reluctant yes vote, noting he would have preferred a 10 day extension to the pay or vacate notice, and also his concerns for the effect the bill would have on smaller landlords.

“There’s concern that folks (who) may be saving up for retirement, or are retired and have a rental property, that this is going to make life much more difficult for them,”Zeiger said, noting the change would likely impact smaller landlords more than larger ones.

Zeiger said there’s no doubt there is a problem with homelessness and that much of that has to do with people being unable to afford their rent and getting priced out of their homes, but punishing landlords is the wrong approach.

“Let’s not place blame on folks who I think, very often a part of the solution for folks who may be on the verge of homelessness,” Zeiger said. “I think some of the people who are most engaged in helping to prevent homelessness in this state are our landlords … people who are providing rental housing, who have a relationship with their tenants.”

“There is a housing supply shortage, let’s be clear about that. And this policy will not resolve that problem,” Zeiger stressed, echoing Fortunato’s position that encouraging more affordable housing through the private sector was the best step lawmakers could take.

Others worried this move would actually hurt efforts to create more affordable housing.

“With everything that is happening today, and everything that is being proposed, why on earth would you want to increase the supply if you’re an entrepreneur,” Republican Senator Mark Shoesler asked.

“This is what heavy-handed government actions do. It attempts to solve a problem with a cleaver when a scalpel might do the trick,” said Republican Senator Steve O’Ban pointing out the risk that passing this bill may prompt landlords to sell their rentals and further lower the stock of housing.

Democratic Senator Mark Mullet stressed that the bill represented input from both landlord and tenant groups.

“We are trying to do it differently … and I know, there’s always people that wish there was less and there’s always, obviously on the tenant side, there’s people that wish there was more. I honestly believe we have tried to strike a balance here to help tenants in a way that landlords can survive and thrive in this state,” Mullet said.

Some Republicans raised concerns that the bill would open the door for abuse by habitual late rent payers. It would extend the pay or vacate period, allow judicial review, and limit how late fees and attorney fees can be collected. Senator Kuderer, however, pointed out the bill has a provision to protect against that by removing protections for anyone who pays late, three times in one year.

Macri’s bill is now headed to the Senate. And Kuderer’s moves to the House for consideration.

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