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How efforts to solve homelessness are unfolding in Washington's Legislature

Will James
An encampment in downtown Olympia in December 2018.

Years of rising rents and worsening homelessness have made housing a central topic in this year’s state legislative session.

The issue has gained urgency, and the attention of a broader swath of legislators, as housing problems have spilled out of Seattle into smaller cities from Tacoma to Aberdeen to Ellensburg. 

Lawmakers in Olympia are moving ahead with an array of reforms designed to stabilize housing markets and strengthen protections for tenants. 

Meanwhile, other bills have died, including several that would have changed the legal landscape for people who are currently unsheltered.

KNKX reporter Will James has been following developments in Olympia, and joined Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick to unpack them. You can listen to their conversation above.

Among the most closely watched proposals at this point in the session is an eviction-reform package. It’s designed to make eviction regulations friendlier to tenants, primarily by giving them two weeks to pay overdue rent before eviction proceedings begin, instead of just three days. 

Eviction is a well-established driver of homelessness. Proponents say the bill could give renters facing a short-term financial crisis enough time to receive a paycheck or get help from friends, family, or a homelessness-prevention program. 

"They’re still going to owe the rent to the landlord," said Michele Thomas, who has lobbied in favor of the bill as director policy and advocacy for the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance. "Nobody’s going to say that they can live in the housing without paying the rent, of course. But this makes the eviction system more responsive to a tenant’s situation."

Landlords’ advocates have criticized the proposal. Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, said his organization supports increased notice, but 14 days is too long. 

"We do hope that these changes help folks who need some short-term assistance to get back on their feet because of a financial emergency or family emergency," he said. "But we have our concerns about their overall effect on the market."

Waller said the change is extreme enough to cause some landlords to leave the market or sell their units, possibly resulting in rent increases from new owners. He also said some landlords may start seeking overdue payments more quickly, instead of giving a few days’ leeway, thus neutralizing some of the law’s effects. 

One landlord-friendly provision would allow landlords, in some cases, to receive reimbursement from a state fund if a tenant isn’t able to pay.  

The proposal comes after recent studies have laid bare the causes and effects of eviction in Washington.

recent survey of more than 1,200 Seattle eviction cases showed most happened due to nonpayment of rent. In just over half of nonpayment cases, the tenant owed one month’s rent or less, and most cases were less than $2,500. Three-quarters of tenants facing eviction ended up leaving their units. 

Another study, by the University of Washington, showed black residents are evicted at far higher rates than other groups. In Pierce County, one in six black residents were evicted between 2013 and 2017, according to the research.

Other proposals that seek to address the macro causes of homelessness are moving ahead. One would require landlords to give tenants 60 days' notice of any rent increase. Another would allow cities and counties to hold onto a portion of the state sales tax and use it to fund the construction of affordable housing. 

Several proposals that died would have addressed a more controversial topic: the management of people who are already unsheltered. One bill would have codified the rights of people to sleep and live outdoors without being penalized by police. Another would have forbidden encampments from existing near schools. 

Another bill that appears dead, disappointing housing advocates, would have made it much harder for a landlord to displace a tenant who has a month-to-month rental agreement.

The so-called "just cause" law would have required landlords to have a "legitimate business reason" for ending such an arrangement. Currently, a landlord can end a month-to-month agreement for any reason at all, with 20 days' notice.

Seattle, the only Washington city with a just cause law, has had it for nearly 40 years. Under the law, acceptable reasons for ending a month-to-month agreement include the landlord wanting to sell or renovate a unit, or the tenant's failure to pay rent.

Landlords opposed the idea of expanding the law to the rest of the state, saying it would limit their ability to remove problematic tenants.

"Our issue with just cause eviction laws are they benefit an individual who has poor behavior to the detriment of everyone else who has acted appropriately in their residential community," said Waller, of the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association. 

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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