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'The whole idea of a government safety net is like a sham': Renters frustrated by lack of help

Jeff Chiu
The Associated Press
A man walks in front of a "for rent" sign in a window of a residential property in October 2020.


This pandemic is testing peoples’ safety nets. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent survey, more than 140,000 renters in Washington do not know how they will pay next month’s rent.


State and federal eviction moratoriums are preventing most people from being forced out for not paying rent. But these expire at the end of this month. If they aren’t extended, back rent will be due.

One person we spoke with who is unable to pay rent is Alison. Alison is 26 years old and uses they/them pronouns. They never thought they’d be in this situation.


Looking back over the last few years, Alison says they did everything right to make sure they had enough savings to get them through a rough financial stretch. They hustled for work as a freelance marketer, and they made extra money as a nanny.


“I'm frustrated because I played the game, you know. Like I did the whole college thing. You can play the game, and it still can go sideways,” says Alison.


When the pandemic hit, Alison’s freelance work dried up, and they had to say no to nanny work because they have a condition that makes them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Alison is OK with sharing their story, but they don't want us to use their last name. They’re embarrassed about being in this situation, even though it’s something they don't have a lot of control over. 


When I first connect with Alison, it’s August and they are living in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Alison’s savings are almost tapped out, and they are a member of the unlucky ranks who are owed unemployment but aren't getting it.


Paying the $1,200 a month rent gets more difficult. The eviction moratoriums mean Alison can stay where they are and not pay rent. But for Alison, this is not an option.


“I would honestly live out of a car than do that. I have bills I haven’t touched because I’ve been worried about rent and feeding myself,” Alison says, “And all the assistance I’ve been able to get from the federal government is the $1,200 dollar stimulus check. That’s it.”


A lot of Alison’s neighbors in the building are in similar predicaments. Some are even worse off.


“I have one who she, like, at the beginning of this got really screwed over. I don't think she had really any savings. So she had to break her lease and she had to give away her dog, and she moved to Florida. And it was like the saddest thing I've ever seen,” says Alison.


Still, Alison says people are finding ways to help each other.


“I have a neighbor who, she's not, like, maybe the greatest with tech. She's a little older, so, like, I'll help her with that. And in exchange, she would give me money, basically, that would pay for my groceries that week.”


Rather than stay and build up more debt, Alison is preparing to leave this tight-knit community and move to someplace cheaper, ideally free.


“I'm hoping that I don't have to stay at a relative's or stay at a friend's for that long and that I can get on my feet. But the fact is there's that uncertainty in the middle of a pandemic. So when people think, oh, great rent moratorium -- the moratorium doesn't help. The only thing it prevents is mass homelessness,” says Alison.


What Alison is going through is a very familiar story to Edmund Witter. Witter is an attorney with the Housing Justice Project with the King County Bar Association. His job is to try and prevent people from being kicked out of their homes. He defends tenants in court.


“If you're a renter, you kind of know what can -- how this can go really badly if you don't keep that good relationship with your landlord at the end of the day. So I think there's a lot of people who are trying their best,” says Witter.


In normal times, the Housing Justice Project handles more than 2,000 cases a year. With the moratoriums in place, you’d think no evictions would be happening right now. But there are hundreds.


In Washington, you can still be evicted under several different scenarios. One is if you’re a threat to the health and safety of others or the property. Another is if the owner wants to sell the building. The owner can also force a tenant out if the owner wants to move back into the house or apartment. 


One thing the order is clear about is landlords have tooffer a tenant a reasonable payment plan if they aren’t able to pay the rent in full.


“But we have a lot of tenants who come back to us and say, I don’t have anything I can offer. I can't even, I don't even know how I'm going to put food on the table, let alone pay rent,” Witter says.


Since March, across Washington state, there have been more than 600 eviction cases filed in court. These cases are contested; the tenant is fighting to stay. In King County, over the last several months, at least 80 households have lost their legal battle and been evicted.


Again, these are just the cases that make it to the legal system. Witter has no doubt that many more evictions are happening that never get to the point where lawyers get involved. Instead, the tenant agrees to an unplanned move in the middle of a pandemic.


When the eviction moratoriums eventually lift and tenants need to pay back rent, some housing experts say we’ll see a wave of evictions.


Witter sees a different scenario taking shape. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia shows more rent payments being made with credit cards. This is debt that is difficult to pay off. People who go this route might come out the other side of this pandemic with a roof over their heads, but no retirement, no savings, no buffer if they have another financial crisis.


“We know from prior research that most evictions happen for not a lot of money. And so it doesn't take much to lose your home. And even normal circumstances, if people don't have that savings or other ability to sort of come up with that payment in the event of a missed paycheck or temporary job loss, we're gonna see even more evictions in years from now,” Witter warns. 


For people struggling to pay rent, there is some financial help from the federal CARES Act. Washington state has about $100 million that can go toward rental assistance. Counties are in charge of handing it out. According to Witter, some counties are better equipped than others to do this. He says it’s one thing to approve applications from people needing help with their rent, it’s another to actually get the money into landlords’ bank accounts. 


The program expires at the end of 2020. Any money that isn’t spent will have to be returned to the federal government.


A few months go by. When I check back in with Alison, it’s early December. Instead of the sounds of Seattle traffic in Capitol Hill, I hear birds chirping in the background. Alison is now living just outside Vancouver, Washington.


Alison is living with their stepfather, a man, who for various reasons, they barely knew before they arrived at his home to move into a spare bedroom.


"So, like, I'm trying to be grateful, but I'm also like, 'Oh, gee, it's, like, this is really hard,' ” Alison says. 


Alison is still looking for work. They have made some headway with unemployment. They are getting a small amount. It’s enough to pay off some bills but not enough to move out of their stepfather’s house. Alison is still thousands of dollars in debt.


“I feel like I'm just like perpetually on pause,” says Alison, “My savings are literally gone. I don't have anything. So, yeah, I made the right decision by saying, you know, I'm going to have to go live with a family member who can help me meet my basic needs. But for people who can't do that, the whole idea of a government safety net is like a sham, in my opinion. So I feel for people who don't have the benefit that I have.”


WhenAlison talks about the future, it’s with a tone of caution. In one of our conversations, they say when they eventually become financially whole again, they want to be beholden to as few people as possible -- no landlords or rental agreements. Instead of an apartment building like the one she moved out of, Alison can see their future home being an RV, a home that goes where they want to go, not a place they’d ever be forced to move from. 


To hear a more in-depth version of this story, listen to the the podcastTransmission.  


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.