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Seattle City Council approves Sawant plan to fund lawyers for tenants facing eviction

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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dan
dan
3 months ago

Why not just take the $millions budgeted for the lawyers and pay the Landlords the back rent? Or better yet, since the City Council thinks Landlords should work for free, make the lawyers represent delinquent tenants for free as well.

Bob
Bob
3 months ago
Reply to  dan

“Work”? What “work” does a landlord do exactly?

Annoyed realist
Annoyed realist
3 months ago
Reply to  Bob

They worked to afford the property in the first place.

CD Neighbor
CD Neighbor
3 months ago
Reply to  Bob

unplug your toilet, fix your leaky sink, patch and paint the walls, put new glass into broken windows, clean the carpets, shovel your snow, cut your grass, trim your hedges, put new shingles/tar on your roof, paint the siding, hang a new door, change the locks, fix your heater when it goes out at 11pm on a weekday night, put in a new hot water heater, cockroach bomb when the people next to you bring in an infestation, fix your fridge, fix your stove, repair the front steps, repair the back steps, snake the sewer, referee your disagreement with your roommate… shall I go on? These are all things my parents did when they were landlords and I’m sure I could think up plenty more – oh and this was all in their “spare” time, after they finished up their regular 40hr/week jobs..

James T.
James T.
3 months ago

Finally some good news for tenants. Landlords have been screwing us over for far too long in Seattle. It’s not on tenants to foot the bill for a landlord’s bad financial decision buying a house out of their means.

dan
dan
3 months ago
Reply to  James T.

It’s not ‘out of their means’ when they rent it to someone who agrees to pay rent. One should be allowed to make financial decisions based on contracts willingly entered into and pursue damages when the contract is violated.

Nope
Nope
3 months ago
Reply to  James T.

I think what you fail to understand is that the affordable property’s the city wants to be available while be precisely the ones that get sold or go to Airbnb. It’s interesting that the legal assistance is income tested, but the eviction moratorium is not.

Russ
Russ
3 months ago
Reply to  James T.

I don’t understand how this comment is relevant – if you don’t pay your rent you will still be evicted.

Bob
Bob
3 months ago
Reply to  James T.

I believe basically the only thing that is on the tenants is to pay their rent.

slider292
slider292
3 months ago
Reply to  James T.

By your logic, James, renters would be spending outside their means, too.

Glenn
Glenn
3 months ago
Reply to  James T.

James, if you want to solve this problem simply dedicate public funds to pay when tenants who have incurred legal problems obligations resulting from residing with n a residence cannot pay. Means test it so the best taxpayers are not responsible for everyone’s rent. That prevents evictions, protects property rights, and efficiently delivers a policy objective with minimal overhead.

Or squander taxpayer dollars providing legal representation, forcing landlords to spend more to obtain funds they are indisputably owed. Seems like an easy choice, yet Council makes the wrong decision. Tell me James, do you support the right to own private property and rent it to make money?

Bob
Bob
3 months ago
Reply to  Glenn

I think I can guess the answer to that lol

Nope
Nope
3 months ago

It’s never ending. Imagine owning a rental unit, say a MIL in your basement that you did let out at fairly low cost. You will now be thinking that you will be trapped with someone you can’t ever remove and paying all their utility bills. I hate Airbnb, but it’s a lot safer rental platform at this point.

Bob
Bob
3 months ago
Reply to  Nope
Russ
Russ
3 months ago

I’m usually on the side of “SCC is out of touch with what the city actually needs” but I see this as a good thing. The more pragmatic members on the council were able to scope this ordinance to the people that actually need it and it will be a deterrent to taking advantage of poor people. If tenants don’t pay their rent / destroy the property the landlords will still be able to evict them and landlords would have needed to hire a lawyer for the process already so it doesn’t change much.

If Sawant had her way they would have passed a law that wouldn’t have stood up in court and the other members recognized this which is why the requirement that recipients attest they aren’t able to afford representation passed 8-1.

A more surprising vote was on the amendment to open the legal assistance procurement process to competitive bidding in 2022 which only passed 6-3 (Sawant, Morales and Mosqueda opposing) – good indication of who are the deepest into procurement corruption and favoritism.

district13tribute
district13tribute
3 months ago
Reply to  Russ

Good note. I hadn’t read the vote on competitive bidding anywhere. Will be interesting to bear watching as in the past the council completely ignored RFP results and sent money to their supporters anyway (see LIHI/Share).

R U Serious?
R U Serious?
3 months ago
Reply to  Russ

“I promise I really need it” is not actually an effective way to make sure that the people receiving a lawyer on the city’s dime could not afford to pay themselves. The steps required to scope it to people who really needed it were judged to be “humiliating” and taken off the table.

HTS3
HTS3
3 months ago

Sawant says, “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.” Hmmm. Apples and oranges here in my opinion. Public roads, are public roads. Public schools, are public schools. There is no word “public” in front of apartments or rental houses. Renters have signed a contract with a private individual or company. This is private property not public. Essentially, these public officials (there’s that word again) are declaring all rental property to be subject to Eminent Domain—without compensation.

Annoyed realist
Annoyed realist
3 months ago
Reply to  HTS3

Think about her ideology. She wants everything to eventually become public.

Nope
Nope
3 months ago
Reply to  HTS3

The city will only achieve one thing by doing all of this – landlords will increase rental criteria to 4-5 times rent to make sure only those in the $150k jobs need apply. Since those type of people don’t rent lower end places (my MIL for instance), a lot of other places which would take low income / higher risk renters will disappear. How is that a good outcome ?

dan
dan
3 months ago
Reply to  HTS3

HTS3 I agree. If the government paid for housing, then they could give it away for free, but users would probably take as much care of it as they do the roads they drive on for free. Why would any private individual pay to build housing if they couldn’t charge for its use?

RWK
RWK
3 months ago

The requirement that a tenant only needs to “attest” that he/she can’t afford a lawyer is a major flaw in this legislation. There’s gonna be a whole lot of lying going on.

Jim
Jim
3 months ago

Housing providers will simply adjust qualifications upwards, and not rent to the very people Sawant is trying to help. Oh, that’s right, she has a background check moratorium in the works as well. Great! If the medicine makes you sick, take more medicine to counter the side effects.It’s a bit like defunding the police. Gun sales are up 1000% over the last 6 months. Now we have 2 or 3 shooting a day. Just watch the local news.

joanna
3 months ago

This is progress and will lead to more negotiations and understandings without an eviction being necessary. It will be helpful to all involved.

HTS3
HTS3
3 months ago
Reply to  joanna

Not helpful to landlords. Do you consider them to be “involved?” Many landlords are simply small business people. Their small business is investing in, then managing and repairing a house to rent. Actions like this by the City Council essentially puts all the burden on them for the unfortunate financial situation created by the pandemic. Do renters need help? You bet. Why are the only people not being helped by the government, are landlords. All of this money to pay for legal help for renters in default would go a long way toward paying the rent. When the damn has a hole in it, perhaps money should go to fixing the leak instead of buying rubber boots for everyone.