Whatcom groups help tenants end WA eviction moratorium

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The Washington eviction moratorium bridge officially ended in late October, exposing tenants to the reality of eviction after about a year and a half of protection.

Now comes the ultimate test: will the resources and programs available be sufficient to prevent a wave of evictions in Whatcom in the weeks and months to come?

Gov. Jay Inslee said there was a need for the moratorium on evictions to end at a press conference on Thursday, October 28, stating that “you can’t have an economy at the end of the day where no one pays. rent”.

But he stressed that there are mechanisms in place, such as local rental assistance and eviction resolution programs, which will prevent a large number of evictions from taking place on the “first day after expiration. of the moratorium on evictions “.

In Whatcom County, the groups managing these resources are doubling to meet growing demand as homeowners begin to carry out evictions.

“The need is still great,” said Debbie Paton, director of community services for the Opportunity Council, in an email to the Bellingham Herald. The Opportunity Council is a local non-profit organization that helps disburse rent relief funds. “We are working closely with our partners, including Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center and the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program, to help prevent evictions. “

The Inslee Eviction Moratorium Bridge Proclamation was intended to lift the state out of its eviction moratorium, which began in March 2020.

The bridge was originally scheduled to last from July 1 to September 30, dictating that tenants must pay rent in full from August 1, unless they negotiated a lesser amount or payment plan with their landlord or ‘they were actively seeking rental assistance. . In the last days of September, Inslee extended the bridge until October to allow more time for rental assistance funds to distribute locally.

This deadline has finally arrived.

Rental assistance monitoring

The Opportunity Council is struggling to shell out millions of dollars still available in rent assistance and has faced a flood of appointment requests in recent weeks, Paton said.

So far this year, the Opportunity Council has served 1,100 households in Whatcom County and distributed $ 6 million in eviction rent assistance. About $ 1.3 million has been distributed over the past six weeks since September 23, according to figures Paton provided to the Herald at the time.

About 4,655 households in Whatcom County were in arrears with rent as of June 2021, which is the most recent data available, according to Melissa Morin, communications specialist for the Whatcom County Department of Health. It’s hard to find an accurate, up-to-date number, Paton said, because the pandemic is so dynamic.

However, there are more rental assistance appointment requests than the Opportunities Board is capable of responding to, and feedback from local service providers and advocates confirms that there is still an unmet need for it. rental aid.

In response to strong demand, the Opportunity Council has increased the number of rental assistance appointments offered each week. Appointments fill up very quickly, Paton said, and the November lineup will be open every Monday.

The organization still has around $ 6 million in rent assistance funding, and more will likely be available soon in the next round of contracts. But there are still challenges in getting the money to those who need it, including a labor shortage, navigating the program rules, paperwork, and communicating with landlords and tenants, a Paton said.

The program is increasingly streamlined over time, she said in an email to the Herald.

“We’re almost fully staffed to the level we need,” Paton said.

Beginning of the eviction procedure

Since the bridge was lifted a few days ago, the already high number of inquiries about the county’s eviction resolution pilot program has also increased, said Moonwater, executive director of the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center. The state-initiated Eviction Resolution Pilot Program was created in Whatcom County in September to address pandemic rent-related issues between tenants and landlords. Landlords are required to try to involve tenants in the process before an eviction for unpaid rent can go to court.

“We are still in the very early stages of service delivery and are entering a peak volume phase as owners initiate this process,” Moonwater said in an email to the Bellingham Herald.

The program is a partnership between the County Superior Court, the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, the Northwest Justice Project, LAW Advocates, the Opportunity Council and others. Legal aid can be provided free of charge and services are available in multiple languages ​​and regardless of immigration status.

As of noon Thursday, November 4, the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center had received 117 notices of the eviction resolution pilot program. About 70 cases are actively managed by staff, who schedule landlord-tenant mediations for the second half of November through December.

“We expect a number of active cases to be resolved through reconciliation and access to rental assistance,” Moonwater told the Herald in an email.

No cases have yet been certified, which would allow a landlord to initiate eviction proceedings in court, but the Whatcom Dispute Resource Center plans to begin certifying cases in which tenants have not responded to from the next two weeks. This means that evictions are potentially on the horizon.

Twenty cases were closed at the owners’ request after the tenant paid the rent before the center committed them to the eviction resolution program. Only one case was closed due to the refusal of the tenant’s services.

Stress for tenants and landlords

Educating tenants will be key to preventing evictions, said David Henken, an attorney with LAW Advocates, which provides free legal assistance to low-income families in Whatcom County. Many people give up as soon as they receive eviction documents from their landlord, he said.

“They can just pack up and go,” Henken said. “But there are many ways to resolve these issues and talking to a lawyer can help.”

“I would just encourage anyone concerned about their relationship with their owner to give us a call,” he explained. “These are people who understand the housing laws, which have changed a lot in the last year.”

LAW Advocates’ phone number is 360-671-6079 ext 15. Callers should leave a message, which Henken says will be returned promptly.

Requests for legal assistance regarding evictions for unpaid rent have just started arriving at LAW Advocates, and Henken hopes their team of about six active volunteers can meet the need. But he is also very concerned about the impacts of completely lifting the moratorium on evictions, as it is difficult to assess how many families need help. Many people who were struggling financially a year ago are likely still struggling, he said.

Owner frustration

There is also frustration and confusion on the other end of the spectrum, among homeowners, said Doug Wight, owner of Windermere Property Management. He said some tenants don’t fully understand eviction moratorium policies and feel they don’t have to pay rent, forcing some landlords to pull out of the industry altogether.

“Some homeowners have had a really tough time because of the cash flow,” Wight said. “They are the ones who invest to provide housing. Seems like they are the ones who have to bear the brunt of bad policy. “

He declined to say what “bad policy” he was specifically referring to, saying it was complicated because Windermere, as a property management company, represents the interests of tenants and landlords. His team had not yet met to coordinate their public response to specific policies.

“We don’t like the idea of ​​government agencies stepping in and basically demonizing landlords because if it wasn’t for them wanting to put their funds to invest in housing, we wouldn’t have any,” said Wight.

Not all landlord-tenant relationships throughout the pandemic have been negative, he said – some landlords have reduced rent or waived rent owed, and some tenants have been incredibly active in trying track their payments using rental assistance and payment programs.

But there are always tenants who don’t pay rent, Wight said, and he believes there are too many barriers for landlords to evict these people.

“It shouldn’t be easy, but it shouldn’t be as hard as it has been,” Wight said. “It penalizes people who invest in housing.”

Resources

Opportunities Council: oppco.org.

Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center: whatcomdrc.org/erpp.

LAW Advocates: lawadvocates.org.

Northwestern Justice Project: washingtonlawhelp.org.

Follow more of our reports on Whatcom Housing & Real Estate Coverage

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Ysabelle Kempe joined the Bellingham Herald in the summer of 2021 to cover environmental affairs. She graduated from Northeastern University in Boston and worked for the Boston Globe and Grist.


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