The Seattle City Council unanimously approved “right to counsel” legislation Monday that will entitle residential tenants facing eviction to an attorney at no cost.
The vote on this legislation, sponsored by District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant, was originally scheduled for two weeks ago, but was delayed via council vote to sort out possible legal concerns. The original bill could have faced a lawsuit since it looked to give everyone the right to legal counsel regardless of income. Washington’s state constitution prohibits cities from giving money to people “except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm.”
Sawant hailed the “historic renter and socialist movement’s ‘Right to Counsel’ victory” in a press release from City Hall after Monday’s vote.
“Today’s historic vote in the City Council to approve our movement’s Right to Counsel legislation from my office is a huge step forward for renters rights in our city,” Sawant said in the press release. “No longer will renters have to fear going to eviction court without the legal aid that they desperately need and justly deserve.”
She thanked several groups for helping push for the legislation including Socialist Alternative, Be:Seattle, the Tenants Union of Washington, UAW 4121, and the ACLU despite “calls from Democrats on the City Council to water down our bill.”
Sawant also filled the public comment session prior to Monday’s full council meeting with speaker after speaker in support of the legislation.
To satisfy concerns about possible legal challenges, the council overcame objections from Sawant and added an amendment to exclude tenants who are not “indigent.” Legislation from 2017 defines “indigent” as a person who is “unable to pay the anticipated cost of counsel… because the person’s available funds are insufficient for the retention of counsel.”
“I believe that this language is going to minimize legal risks of having this law survive the legal challenge, which again I believe is almost going to certainly happen, while also providing access to a right to counsel to those who need it,” said Council President Lorena González, the sponsor of the amendment.
Sawant was the only council member to vote against the González amendment, arguing that it makes tenants “jump through some kind of hoop before they qualify.”
“The right to have a lawyer to prevent eviction should be available for every renter facing eviction just like all the best public services,” Sawant said. “There is no means test to use the public roads, they are available for everyone. There is no means test for public education or for the fire department.”
Several council members pushed back on Sawant’s characterization, saying it wasn’t a means test because tenants would simply need to attest that they can’t afford legal counsel.
Under the bill, the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections would contract with a group of local attorneys and would be required to educate tenants about the new right to counsel in various languages. Similarly, landlords would be required to let their tenants know in eviction notices that they have this right.
Tenants would not have to accept counsel, but the measure would require that they be offered an attorney at no cost.
To provide eviction defense services, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections has contracted with the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project since 2019. Edmund Witter, the project’s senior managing attorney, said they handle about 2,500 eviction cases per year across King County and the legal assistance usually costs between $300 and $500.
Seattle is already spending over $600,000 this year on legal services for renters with the HJP and Tenant Law Project.
The cost of the right-to-counsel program and how it would get funded remains somewhat of an open question, however. The council estimates it would cost $750,000, but that’s subject to change depending on eviction moratoriums and the scale of rental assistance as well as how swiftly it is distributed.
One measure moving through Olympia would require that courts appoint counsel for tenants earning income under 200% of the federal poverty level, which comes out to under $35,000 for a family of two and about $53,000 for a family of four.
It would cost over $12 million per year to provide attorneys to eligible tenants facing eviction, according to the state Office of Financial Management. This legislation passed through the state Senate on a mostly party-line vote earlier this month and is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in a House committee.
In 2017, over 23% of Seattle tenants with legal counsel remained housed, compared to 14.6% of those without counsel, according to an HJP and Seattle Women’s Commission report from 2018 of over 1,200 evictions. Meanwhile, in the Bronx, tenants with an attorney remained housed 86% of the time, a difference which the report attributes to weak tenant protections here and the “lack of a centralized, efficient eviction prevention system.”
The system has become even more difficult for renters to navigate as the law constantly evolves during the COVID-19 pandemic, Witter noted.
“Frankly, the law has been changing, it feels like, every three weeks over the last year and you need people who are going to be attuned to that,” he told CHS earlier this month.
In a more recent survey, more local tenants were able to avoid eviction as rental assistance became increasingly available.
The 2017 report also found that more than half of the tenants in eviction filings were people of color and women were more likely to be evicted over small amounts of money. The vast majority of evictions (86.5%) were for nonpayment of rent and of those, over half were for one month’s rent or less.
The main reasons for falling behind on rent reported were loss of employment, a medical emergency, or a death in the family, all reasons that the pandemic has exacerbated.
“Without this right to counsel legislation, we can expect a tsunami of evictions once the city and state moratoriums expire as renters will still be struggling under the double blows of the capitalist recession and the COVID health crisis and will be burdened with debt,” Sawant said. Both the state and city eviction moratoriums have been extended through June.
Nearly three-quarters of the tenants interviewed said they could pay all or a portion of the rent owed, according to the report.
Over 4,500 evictions are filed in King County each year, but that’s just a fraction of the overall, Witter said, because tenants, daunted by the paperwork and the possibility of having an eviction on their record, will often see eviction notices and just move.
Sawant is also working on legislation that would look to strengthen the city’s just cause eviction ordinance as part of a roster of renters rights initiatives she says will ultimately put rent control back on the table.
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