King County councilmember says rent moratorium would destroy economy

Apr 16, 2020, 5:46 PM | Updated: 7:04 pm

UPDATE: Governor Inslee has extended the eviction moratorium through June 4. It now also prohibits landlords from raising rent for residential and commercial tenants impacted by COVID-19.

While two King County councilmembers are pushing for an overall freeze on rent and mortgage payments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, another councilmember is adamant it would be the fastest way to a nationwide depression.

Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a moratorium on residential evictions due to late rent payment, in light of the record numbers of Washingtonians losing their livelihoods.

Now, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay and Councilmember Joanne Kohl-Welles have written a resolution calling on both the state and national governments to entirely suspend these payments as long as the pandemic lasts. Zahilay told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show that the consequences of not stopping rent payments would include people being forced onto the street and small businesses going under in unprecedented numbers.

However, Councilmember Reagan Dunn said this measure would go too far in allowing the government to get involved in the free market.

“Most reasonable people understand that we have to put a moratorium on evictions right now so that people are not kicked out of their homes … but the world looks much different when you start talking about putting a blanket moratorium on rent and mortgages,” he said.

To Dunn, this measure would essentially allow every person and business, rich and poor, to go without paying rent throughout the rest of the pandemic. He pointed out that some businesses, such as Amazon, are booming due to the pandemic — yet they, too, would be exempt from paying for their office buildings and warehouses under this law.

“What we need to do is narrowly tailor laws to the affected population — so that means look at people who are low-income, and those who have been laid off,” Dunn said. “If you’re in those two classifications, then we can help get you some help. Let’s not do this blanket approach that treats rich and poor the same.”

Furthermore, Dunn believes the move would not be constitutional because “this kind of government/market manipulation” is not within the powers of an elected body. He added that a county government does not have the right to impose a law on state or federal levels.

If a nationwide halt on rent and mortgage payments were to be enacted, Dunn worries the economy would crumble and the country would go from a recession to a years-long depression.

“That would cause massive — very massive — bankruptcy and upend the entire system,” he said. “And my fear is that this well-intended law would in fact make the recession we are in far deeper than it needs to be.”

Instead, Dunn would like to see the governor’s eviction moratorium extended and Section 8 housing subsidies expanded. He also wants the council to pass a measure encouraging landlords and banks to be flexible, waive late fees, and reduce rent. Dunn said most reasonable landlords and mortgage companies should already be finding ways to make things easier for debtors.

Landlords are often painted as evil, rich villains, out to soak the poor for everything they can get, but in reality, Dunn said, they themselves can be small players, too.

“They get the income that they feed their children with by the two or three homes that they own or that they rent out,” he said. “So you’re talking about a lot of mom-and-pop folks.”

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King County councilmember says rent moratorium would destroy economy