Council approves ban on “winter evictions” after significant changes

This afternoon, the City Council gave its final approval to Council member Sawant’s proposed ban on “winter evictions,” after approving six amendments — several of which were over Sawant’s objections.

Here are the changes they made:

  • An amendment by Sawant to clean up two issues: it added one more exemption for an additional case when landlords are legally required to evict tenants (several cases had already been exempted in an earlier amendment in committee, but they missed one case), and clarified that the moratorium is structured legally as a defense that a tenant may assert in an eviction proceeding, rather than a procedural restriction on the courts hearing eviction cases or law enforcement agencies enforcing eviction orders. However, this means that the tenant must actually show up to the eviction proceeding and claim the defense; it doesn’t happen automatically. This amendment was adopted unanimously by the seven Council members present today (Gonzalez and Juarez were absent).
  • An amendment by Lewis to establish a new rent assistance program specifically to provide funds during the period of the year when the winter eviction ban is in place, so as to mitigate the financial burden on landlords. This is intended to be a new fund, not an extension of one of the existing rent assistance programs — though at this point the Council hasn’t appropriated funds to it, and likely wouldn’t do so until the next budget cycle. This was also adopted 7-0.
  • An amendment by Pedersen to exempt small landlords who own four or fewer rental units. Sawant led the objections to this amendment, who pointed out that it’s very difficult for a tenant to figure out how many units their landlord owns, especially for “slumlords” who divide up their properties across several LLC corporations to hide the numbers and the financial liability. Morales had a separate complaint: based on data from the city, she thought that this might exempt a large portion of the city’s rental housing base — possibly over 80%.  Several of the Council members were synmpathetic to these two concern, but a slim majority chose to vote for it anyway and try to get clarification on the issues over the next week. It passed by a 4-3 margin.
  • An amendment by Herbold that expand the exemption for “unlawful behavior” by a tenant to include behavior that impacts the health and safety of other tenants and he owner but may not rise to the level of criminal acts. Sawant was concerned that this was introducing a loosely-defined standard that could end up being abused by landlords to evade the eviction ban. Nevertheless it passed by a 5-2 vote, with Sawant and Morales the only “no” votes.
  • An amendment by Strauss to narrow the window for the ban to December 1 through the last day of February, rather than the original November 1 through March 31. Strauss noted that this aligned with the eviction reform passed by the state legislature last year that gives judges the power to impose a 90-day payment period in eviction cases. Lewis supported it becuase he thought a narrower window improved the bill’s chances of surviving the inevitable legal challenges. It also passed by a slim 4-3 margin, with Sawant, Morales and Herbold voting “no”.
  • An amendment by Strauss that only applies the winter eviction ban to tenants making 100% of the area median income (AMI) or less. Strauss wanted to ensure that high-income tenant couldn’t abuse the system by invoking the ban, which is intended to keep eicted tenants from ending up on the streets. However, Sawant objected, claimin that this was simply creating one more hoop for low-income tenants to ump through in order to avail themselves of the ban (by proving their income). Sawant pointed to the history of means-testing in government programs as an artificual barrier to hig participation in the programs. It also passed by a 4-3 vote, with Sawant, Morales and Mosqueda voting “no”.

That left a substantially changed bill:

  • that is oly in effect three months of the year instead of five;
  • that doesn’t apply to small landlords who own 4 or fewer units;
  • that can’t be used by higher-earning tenants;
  • that inclues financial assistance for landlords;
  • that provides more exceptions for when evictions may proceed in the winter.

The amended bill was approved unanimously by the Council, though Sawant expressed her disappointment with what she saw as numerous “loopholes” added to her bill. It goes to the Mayor for her signature now, though some of her department heads have expressed their objections to the ordinance. UPDATE: a spokesperson for the Mayor, when asked if she would sign the winter evictions bill, provided this noncommittal but pessimistic statement:

Both City Council and the Mayor share the same goal: helping people facing evictions, and keeping them in their homes, especially during the winter months. But the Mayor has been advised a legal fight is almost certain and could be costly to taxpayers, similar to the recent Showbox litigation. During that period no tenant will be protected from eventual eviction and taxpayers will foot the bill.

 While Mayor Durkan will be evaluating the amended ordinance, Mayor Durkan is disappointed that Council did not want to engage in a robust discussion on programs that will legally and actually prevent evictions. Let’s be clear: under Council’s action, tenants will still be evicted. At best, this law will simply delay evictions until March 1st, create more debt, and an eviction on their record.

 We need real solutions to keep people in their homes – we have proven programs that prevent eviction. Between Home Base and the City’s Human Services Department, we have two successful programs with access to millions of dollars that prevented 1,700 evictions last year alone. We can explore whether additional resources are necessary so no one loses their home because they cannot afford rent – regardless of the month.