The outstanding rent Keilani Luxmore owed on her Seattle apartment for the month of December wouldn’t buy you a cup of coffee, a gallon of gasoline or even bus fare in this city.
But Luxmore’s failure to pay $2 last month means she is facing eviction from the home she shares with her three young children, in addition to the possible loss of the federal Section 8 voucher that covers most of her rent.
It could also result in a return to a homeless shelter for Luxmore and her children, ages 3 and under.
“I can’t take care of my three kids without my Section 8 voucher,” said Luxmore, 23, as she wept, standing in a hallway of the King County Courthouse on Thursday, awaiting a hearing on the eviction proceeding. “I just want my kids to be safe.” Her two sons, ages 3 years and 18 months, played around her as she cried to her attorney in frustration. Her 7-month-old daughter cooed occasionally in her stroller.
Edmund Witter, managing attorney with the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, which is representing Luxmore, argued that there should be a distinction between tenants who are thousands of dollars behind in rent and someone like his client.
“There is no rational sense … why a landlord theoretically would be spending $1,000 or more than $1,000 (in fees and court costs) to collect $2,” Witter said. “But it happens.”
Luxmore’s monthly rent for the Lake City apartment is $1,395, according to court records. Her Section 8 voucher, issued by the Seattle Housing Authority, covers all of that but $2, which Luxmore must pay, in addition to utilities.
She said she wrote a money order for both charges for December and doesn’t know why it was not received.
Apartment property manager Ballard Realty Inc. issued a notice to Luxmore on Dec. 12, warning her she had three days to pay the $2 or else vacate; the filing also said she owed $100 in utility bills. Luxmore said the notice was posted on the door of her neighbor, who she said was out of town at the time.
The property manager, on behalf of the apartment owner, then filed a complaint for unlawful detainer against Luxmore on Dec. 28, putting the eviction proceedings in motion. “The total amount due and owing is $2.00,” the legal paperwork said.
Luxmore has since paid the $4 owed in rent for December and January, according to her attorney. But because she did not pay within three days of the initial notice, the company is legally within its right to pursue eviction.
Ballard Realty issued a statement through its attorney Jeana Poloni: “We tried to reach a settlement where the tenant paid her debts” but she refused, the statement said. The company would not comment on whether there were any other issues that prompted the eviction proceedings, and no testimony was heard in the initial hearing Thursday that might have shed light on other concerns.
Often, landlords won’t evict someone over a very small amount of money unless there are other issues at play, because the eviction process is so expensive, said Kerry Coughlin, director of communications for the Seattle Housing Authority.
The building where Luxmore lived, built in 1990, was sold in August to a limited liability company for $3.4 million. Luxmore said the property-management company also changed in the past several months.
King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector hinted at skepticism she felt about the proceedings as she heard Luxmore’s case Thursday. “We’re here for $4,” she told attorneys for both parties, noting the late fees that Luxmore now owes — in the hundreds of dollars — far exceeded the rent she failed to pay on time.
Spector delayed the case one week so both parties could try to resolve the issue. “I’m trying really hard to keep you guys out of court and keep you in your apartment,” Spector said.
If the eviction goes through, Luxmore may have to pay more than $1,000 in combined court costs and attorney’s fees, Witter said. It’s an example of how expensive these situations can quickly become. “You still end up with this huge debt that spirals out of control,” he said.
The Seattle Housing Authority will work with voucher holders if they struggle to pay rent because of a hardship situation, but that differs from case to case. Should Luxmore be evicted, the authority could issue her another Section 8 voucher if there is no indication of criminal behavior or other lease violations that resulted in her losing the apartment, Coughlin said.
“Our mission is to keep people housed,” she said.
The case is one of roughly 6,400 eviction cases filed every year in King County, and is a prime example of why housing advocates are pushing for eviction reform in the Washington State Legislature, which opened the 2019 session Monday. It’s also a case that reflects the power landlords have over their tenants in most parts of the state.
Last year, a joint study by the justice project and the Seattle Women’s Commission found that more than half of Seattle renters who receive eviction notices owed one month’s rent or less. Those evictions, the study found, often resulted in tenants becoming homeless.
Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, plans to introduce at least two bills aimed at eviction reform, including measures that would give people like Luxmore 21 days — not three — to pay late rent, and also give judges some discretion so they can deny eviction if they determine it’s in the interest of justice and equity.
Macri senses bipartisan support for some kind of reform because similar housing issues are arising in districts across the state. More than 37 percent of homes in Washington are occupied by renters, according to recent American Community Survey estimates.
“A case like this really highlights the shortcomings of our state policy and demonstrates how, as a society, we sometimes lose sight of what we’re trying to do, which is really, from my perspective as a policymaker, to create an environment that helps foster strength in communities and not rip them apart,” Macri said.
Before settling into her apartment last May, Luxmore bounced around homeless shelters for months in the process of escaping an abusive relationship. She finally landed at a Mary’s Place family shelter, where she got a case manager and help in finding her current apartment.
She remembered seeing it for the first time. Everything inside was brand-new, and it felt secure and out of the way, everything she wanted.
Now, she feels at a loss.
“They’re going to ruin lives over $2,” Luxmore said.