Inslee bans evictions, rent hikes, late fees

Landlords and tenants have a lot of questions about the state’s eviction moratorium, and the state has few answers so far

by James Drew (4-17-20)
When Wednesday Collier and her partner were laid off last month because of the new coronavirus outbreak, they struggled to pay the rent on their apartment in Olympia.
They didn’t have to worry about losing their home, though. Days earlier, Gov. Jay Inslee had ordered a 30-day moratorium on evictions of residential tenants for nonpayment of rent.

Collier, 24, hadn’t worked enough hours to be eligible for unemployment benefits. Her partner, Joshua Mullins, filed successfully for unemployment and after receiving a $1,200 federal stimulus check, the couple paid their $1,046 rent.
But it was 11 days late. Their landlord charged them a $100 fee, Collier said. She provided a copy of the cashier’s check to The Olympian.
“We can’t be evicted but they can charge us ridiculous late fees still. This needs to stop,” she said in an email Wednesday.
On Thursday, Inslee extended the eviction moratorium through June 4. He also added two major temporary provisions — a ban on landlords charging, or threatening to charge, late fees for non-payment of rent. Tara Lee, an Inslee spokeswoman, said tenants who have paid late fees can get their money back because that provision in Thursday’s proclamation is retroactive to Feb. 29.
The new proclamation prohibits landlords from increasing rents or deposits for residential tenants, as well as for commercial properties as long as those tenants have been impacted by COVID-19.
“People have lost their livelihoods through no fault of their own and we must continue to take steps to ensure they don’t also lose the roofs over their heads,” Inslee said in a written statement.
“Continued support and protection for tenants is the right thing to do and I am extending and expanding the moratorium on evictions through the beginning of June, which will allow for two additional rent cycles,” he added.
State Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, tweeted Thursday night about Inslee’s announcement: “How about getting the economy going again so people can afford to pay for their living expenses! This is overreach and will be detrimental to those providing housing.”
Barkis, who owns a property management firm, said Friday: “We supported the prohibition to give people a little bit of grace on that first 30 days on the eviction. Now [Inslee] is doing policy via proclamation, and he’s usurping the legislative process.”
The rent freeze covers commercial properties if the tenant has been impacted by COVID-19, such as being unable to work or the tenant’s business had to close because it was deemed “non-essential” by Inslee last month. His stay-at-home and partial business closure order runs through May 4.
The expansion of the moratorium on residential evictions for non-payment of rent prohibits landlords from treating unpaid rent and charges as an enforceable debt.
The exception is if the landlord can provide evidence to a court that the resident was offered and refused or failed to comply with a reasonable repayment plan.
“All rent payments delayed through this moratorium will still be owed but a landlord must offer a tenant a reasonable repayment plan to enforce any collection of that debt,” the governor’s office said.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his office has received 525 complaints about landlords allegedly violating the eviction moratorium since Inslee first ordered it on March 18. The attorney general’s office has contacted 406 tenants and 216 landlords and property managers, according to Ferguson. He has added 15 assistant attorneys general to help his civil rights team respond to complaints.
“That goes from things that are deeply concerning as in putting pressure on tenants. ‘Hey, we know you’ve received your stimulus check or that’s coming in the mail soon. We’re expecting you to use that to pay the rent.’
“To step up even more, ‘hey, we’re going to issue a late fee every day of $50 you don’t pay. Hey, this is going to impact your credit,’ using threatening language. All the way up to what we’ve seen is the most egregious, which is the property management company sending out 14-day pay-or-vacate notices. We saw that in Boulders in Tacoma,” Ferguson said.
The News Tribune reported Wednesday that the attorney general’s office ordered Boulders at Puget Sound to stop sending emails, calling and posting notices to doors stating that residents need to pay rent or vacate, which violates Inslee’s eviction moratorium.
Tenants have expressed concern about whether the end of the moratorium would trigger a wave of eviction, said Carrie Graf, a staff attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, Washington’s largest publicly-funded legal aid program
That is an anxiety that Collier has felt. She’s waiting for her federal stimulus check, but says it would pay for only one month of rent.
She doesn’t know when she’ll be able to return to her job at an ice cream shop. It’s also unclear when the restaurant where her partner works as a manager will reopen its doors.
Collier said she welcomed Inslee’s announcement Thursday to extend the eviction moratorium for nonpayment of rent and expand it to prohibit landlords from charging late fees.
“It’s great that it happened, but it should have been put in the initial moratorium. We all knew that landlords would take advantage of that,” she said.
Collier said an office employee at her apartment complex said the $100 would be returned as a credit on her account.

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