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Seattle landlords sue over pandemic eviction bans

12th Man flags are seen in from an apartment window on January 18, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Several Seattle landlords have filed a federal lawsuit against the state and the city of Seattle over Governor Inslee and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s emergency eviction moratoriums, and a Seattle City Council repayment ordinance that largely blocks landlords from even trying to collect unpaid rent until six months after the pandemic emergency ends.

The lawsuit claims it’s an overuse of executive powers that is mostly unnecessary, and in some cases misused, leaving landlords on the hook.

The trio of landlords are mostly mom and pop operations, with between one and a little more than 20 rental units. Collectively, they are already owed more than $60,000 from tenants living in units they aren’t paying for, in many cases for months.

That includes some tenants who could afford to pay, or who have refused to work out repayment plans, and one that tried to organize neighbors into a rent strike, according to attorney Ethan Blevins with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the plaintiffs.

Blevins says one landlord has about 20 low-income housing units with six tenants not paying.

“And one of the problems he’s come across is that he tries to connect with these people to arrange partial payment, or start dealing with repayment, and they just don’t respond, or reject any attempt to negotiate outright, which I think is just one of the results when you say there’s essentially going to be no consequence for not paying rent,” Blevins said.

“It creates an incentive that can hurt landlords as they try to negotiate with their tenants,” he added.

Another landlord has two tenants who have refused to pay since April. The landlord’s lease agreements expressly provide that tenancy does not roll into a month-to-month at the end of a fixed term, but it can’t enforce the lease provision requiring the tenants to vacate the rental property at the end of their lease term.

There also appears to be some politicking going on, Blevins says.

“At least one of these tenants actively encouraged the other tenants in the building and neighborhood to engage in a rent strike by refusing to pay rent,” he said.

“So there’s some political motivation as well to not pay because I think there’s a growing movement to get local municipalities or states to just forgive rent outright, rather than just ban evictions temporarily,” he explained.

A third landlord has a tenant living in his lone property who has been employed throughout the pandemic but had stopped paying full rent last year, before COVID. The landlord has issued a half dozen 14-day pay or vacate notices, and gone above and beyond to make arrangements, according to the complaint, including waiving rents and fees, only to be ignored.

Each of the landlords is owed between just over $10,000 to about $27,000, not counting late fees – which cannot be imposed or collected under Inslee’s proclamation and Mayor Durkan’s emergency order.

In some cases, the suit points out, it could be a year or more before a landlord has the ability to start trying to collect back rent because of the Seattle City Council’s accompanying repayment ordinance, which provides renters with eviction protections for six months after the end of the emergency moratorium, and allows for repayment over a six-month period depending on the amount owed.

“Theoretically, some of that money [can be] repaid starting then, which is probably at least a year from now,” Blevins said, noting concern about even further action down the line.

“I also suspect that the city may be inclined to pass another ordinance just forgiving the entire debt. Later on,” he added.

“Because of the eviction bans and the repayment ordinance, Plaintiffs are prohibited from evicting, attempting to evict, or trying to recover any overdue rent,” the complaint said.

“As a result, the Plaintiffs are deprived of their right to possess their own properties and the obligations (and related remedies) of their lease contracts have been impaired,” Blevins wrote.

Put simply, “in an effort to mitigate the financial hardships individuals face because of the pandemic, Seattle and Washington State have shifted the financial burden of its emergency housing policies from renters or the public to landlords,” Blevins alleged in the lawsuit.

Blevins also questions whether elected officials might be using the emergency orders to overreach and enact long sought policies on landlord tenant law reform under the guise of the emergency.

“I think that this is a way that more progressive governments see an opportunity to sort of sneak in long-time, progressive landlord tenant goals like the rent freeze,” he said. “Rent control has been a long debate in the state of Washington and there still is a ban, technically, on rent control measures. So it’s telling, I think, that the governor kind of slipped in a rent freeze in his proclamation that banned eviction.”

He also points out that landlords are about to have the city’s winter eviction ban to contend with as well.

Mayor Durkan spurns Seattle council’s winter eviction ban, claims it ‘provides no relief’

The governor – who has won multiple legal challenges to his emergency powers during the pandemic – welcomes the lawsuit.

“We welcome the court’s review of the governor’s eviction moratorium, a difficult but necessary measure to prevent widespread homelessness during this unprecedented pandemic. The governor’s moratorium does not erase the debt of past due rent, this is similar to the new CDC national moratorium that is now in place until December 31,” said Tara Lee, the governor’s spokesperson and communications director.

The CDC also just issued a ban on evictions nationwide through the end of the year, two days before the lawsuit was filed.

“The federal ban is not as severe — a tenant has to declare, under penalty of perjury, that they are suffering economic hardship directly related to the pandemic and a variety of other things. So I think that our clients probably would be able to evict under the federal moratorium. We’re kind of trying to figure that out now,” Blevins said.

“But it would kind of fill in and replace the current ones if we were to get an injunction, so we’re looking at and considering whether that should be challenged as well, to avoid that problem,” he added.

In the meantime, all this unpaid rent is piling up and compounding the problem, according to Blevins, who says there is a very real concern when all is said and done this could lead to an even bigger housing shortage than the city and state had before the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, the bank doesn’t want to be a landlord, so for the most part, they’re going to evict current tenants on foreclosed property [as we emerge from these moratoriums],” Blevins explained.

“There’s a concern that we’re going to see a surge in evictions because of these eviction bans and a reduction in housing supply as we come out of the pandemic,” he added.

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