Lewis County landlords say eviction ban taking away much of income

Dec 7, 2020, 12:38 PM | Updated: Dec 14, 2020, 11:15 am
home buyer, home prices, Lewis County...
(KIRO 7 image)
(KIRO 7 image)

A group of Lewis County landlords became the most recent plaintiffs to file suit against Governor Inslee’s eviction moratorium.

Filed in the Lewis County Superior Court last week by the Washington Business Properties Association on behalf of the Washington Landlord Association and four small-time landlords, the suit seeks “injunctive relief” from the governor’s blanket ban that prevents tenants being evicted for non-payment of rent. Similar lawsuits have also been filed in Seattle and Yakima.

The eviction moratorium was first established in March to support renters who faced financial difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, it has been extended several times.

“We certainly don’t need more housing insecurity in the moment of uncertainty during this pandemic,” Inslee stated in October, when he extended the moratorium to the end of this year.

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Sue and Dan Horwath are among the Lewis County plaintiffs. The couple owns several buildings around Chehalis, Centralia, and Napavine, an investment they say is their sole income in retirement. The Horwaths had their own business restoring antique furniture, which means they don’t have the traditional retirement saving plans of people working for large companies.

“Being self-employed, our idea for retirement was to invest in property along the way as we could and have rental homes as our retirement. We don’t have 401ks, we don’t have any other of the retirement instruments that are common to probably 90% of the population,” Dan Horwath said. “This is it — the sum total of 45 years of personal work.”

They said many people believe landlords are rich, but in actuality, many landlords are normal people trying to eke out a living. In the Horwaths’ case, that income can come through a narrow profit margin.

“I don’t think most people understand that the return on your investment, in rentals like we do, is somewhere between 3 and 6%,” Dan Horwath said. “It’s not something where, because the rent is $1,000 a month, that doesn’t mean that’s an income of $1,000 a month.”

That means that having one tenant out of 14 not paying rent for nine months is “a pretty heavy burden,” Sue Horwath said.

Unfortunately, the Horwaths said that is exactly what has happened this year. One renter has refused to pay rent for nine months — or to even talk about why she can’t pay.

“When she heard that she didn’t have to pay rent, she took that literally … she has refused to talk about the rent, any mitigating circumstances, or any way to overcome the problem,” Dan Horwath said.

Because the moratorium only requires a person to state that they cannot pay, there is no way to find out if she is actually having financial difficulties. The Horwaths said that this tenant is a nurse, and they believe she has not had employment difficulties.

That particular house is due for routine renovations, including a roof. Combined with the $15,000 owed in rent, “there’s a $30,000 backlog in that house,” Dan Horwath said. Additionally, the tenant has not payed electricity, which will also come back to them.

The couple said if a tenant legitimately had financial troubles and couldn’t pay rent, they would be all right with that — provided the renter was being open, honest, and communicative.

“As long as they kept talking to us and we were convinced they were trying to find work and they were trying to work things out, we would have forgiven them — that wouldn’t have been a problem,” Dan Horwath said.

That’s why they are seeking a change in the moratorium that will require people not paying rent to prove financial hardship. That way, they said, people who are in need can get the housing assistance they deserve, and people who are in a comfortable financial position will not be able to take advantage of those in need — or of the law.

“It would make a great deal of difference if people knew that they couldn’t just decide not to pay rent — they needed to at least show some proof that they were unable, or that they were seeking employment,” Dan Horwath said.

The way the Horwaths see it, the current eviction moratorium violates private property laws because the governor is forcing them to provide free housing.

“If we were a restaurant and were shut down, at least we wouldn’t have to provide [free] meals and keep the lights on … but in our case, we are giving food away, and we’re required to do so,” Dan Horwath said.

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Lewis County landlords say eviction ban taking away much of income