Councilmember Sawant’s Emergency Moratorium on Evictions During Winter – What to Know
By Levio Poletti
December 31, 2019
Blog Post 0003/2019
On Monday, December 9, Seattle’s District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed legislation that would restrict landlords from being able to evict tenants in the winter months. Inspired by the Trêve hivernale law from France, this regulation seeks to protect renters from the risk of post-eviction homelessness from November 1st through March 31st of every forthcoming year (Kiro 7). Tenants would be safe from eviction, even if they broke the rules of their contract during these winter months; this holds “regardless of whether just cause for action may exist.” (The Seattle Times). Sawant has additionally mentioned that “the French law that we are trying to model this law on does provide causes that say under specific conditions, extenuating circumstances, the eviction can still happen.” (Kiro 7). What these “extenuating circumstances” might entail has not been specified.
Sawant, operating in the midst of her successful reelection in November to the SCC, was hoping to have the legislation brought to a vote on Monday, December 16, and is now looking to make it happen in January or February of 2020 (MSN). Mayor Jenny Durkan’s response to the legislation’s announcement was delivered by her spokesman, Mark Prentice, who stated: “We will want to see Councilmember Sawant’s proposal as well as legal analysis by the City Attorney’s Office” (The Seattle Times). Prentice reiterated Durkan’s emphasis on the need to protect tenants.
During this six-month timetable, landlords would still be required to pay fixed expenses such as property taxes, utilities and insurance, along with having to maintain the property as required by the city of Seattle Rental registration inspection program. These payments will be required despite the fact that there is no guarantee that landlords will collect rent on time from tenants (or at all, until the end of the six-month period). Landlords will be faced with having to implement a much higher qualifying standard for a new tenant to sign a lease which would ultimately make it harder for those who wish to find housing.
This proposal would act as an emergency moratorium (King 5). Seattle Renters’ Commission Co-Chairs Devin Silvernail and Jessica Westgren penned a letter of support for this legislation, stating that “Setting limits to curb homelessness and loss of life during winter months should be a no-brainer, and would fall in line with procedures that the City already has in place.” (MSN). Sawant herself was quoted in saying that this law would be a “humane approach to the homelessness crisis that voters have called for.” (The Seattle Times). In 2017, there were 3,200 total evictions in King County. More than 85% of these evictions were on grounds of nonpayment, and 50% of these nonpayment evictions were due to amounts that topped out at one month’s worth of rent.
While Councilmember Sawant has garnered support for her proposal, there are outspoken critics who have been keen to point out the law’s inherent blindsides. Roger Valdez, a representative for landlords and developers, said that the people who do work hard “scrape together to make the rent payment on time… what are they going to think when the neighbor down the hall hasn’t paid their rent because its wintertime and knows they’re not going to get convicted?” (Kiro 7). While Sawant’s proposal would allow for landlords to record debts accrued during the winter months, and keep them on the books, there has been no proposal for how landlords would be protected against the loss of a source of income that their business is dependent upon. The French government protects landlords from this threat by providing them with insurance that offsets any lost rent during the winter period. One other key distinction between the French law and Sawant’s proposal is that evictions during the winter period in France are simply “stayed” until the beginning of April; in Seattle, evictions are outright banned from consideration until the winter period has passed.
Valdez also points out that the number of people who would benefit from this law would be exceptionally minimal. In Seattle, only 0.7% of rental households were filed an eviction, and only 0.3% were actually carried out (Forbes). In real numbers, there were 168,295 rental households in Seattle, and only 600 received evictions. This is for the entire year of 2017; no data was collected on the percentage of evictions that took place during the winter months. If we were to cut 600 in half, only 300 of the 168,000 rental households would have benefitted directly from Sawant’s proposal. In other words, a significantly small minority of Seattle tenants would theoretically benefit, at the definite expense of Seattle’s entire landlord community. Furthermore, the law seems to largely justify its capacity for banning evictions on grounds of a conception of homelessness where weather serves as the single most significant challenge a homeless person faces when they sleep outside; Valdez reiterates that there are a “myriad of bad things a person faces when they ‘sleep outside’”(Forbes). Focusing our attention on these other “bad things” – including but not limited to drug abuse, job security, and mental health – could allow us to tackle the issue from a standpoint that would be more beneficial for tenents, and much less costly for landlords.
What to Look for in the Future
As of now there is no clear evidence that Sawant’s proposal will be passed into law. This means that you should not expect to be exempt from eviction during the months of November through March. While Sawant does have expressed support from members of the Seattle Renter’s Commission, as well as possible support from Mayor Durkan, she has yet to provide any substantial refutations to the objections that have been made against her proposal. A valid response to these concerns would help in granting her the support she needs.
If the law were to be passed, then tenants would buy-and-large be protected from eviction from November 1st through March 31st. If a tenant is at risk of making their payments late during the winter months, then this law would protect them from eviction. If a tenant is good about making their payments on time, then this law will likely strip them of any incentive to keep paying on time, since they would have no clear reason for doing so.
Seattle’s tenant population could expect to face evictions at a higher rate in the month that precedes the wintertime period (October). In theory, landlords would expect to keep their tenants through this six-month time period with the expectation that they will be able to make their payments on time during each month. If landlords have reason to suspect that their tenant will not be a reliable source of income for the six months that would follow, then they may be more willing to remove a tenant before they are required to keep them as a renter for the next half year.
If you are a landlord, then you would have to waive most offenses during these winter months. You would be allowed to keep tenant debts on record, but you would not be able to immediately evict them at the end of the wintertime period. Furthermore, because there is no government-subsidized insurance policy for lost rent payments, you cannot be guaranteed income from a tenant who fails to make payments during this six-month period. There is effectively no clear benefit to be had for you, although that could change if Sawant amends the proposal so that it is beneficial in some way for landlords. Still, the chances that Sawant will provide a beneficial amendment for landlords are slim; the law was intended from the beginning to help tenants at the expense of Seattle’s landlord community.
At this point in time, Sawant will need to address the concerns of Valdez and others if her moratorium is to have a chance at being passed into law.
Note: this article was edited on January 1st, 2019 to remove a grammatical error at the end of the third paragraph.