It was a car accident that catapulted Gina Owens into advocacy. In 2000, Owens was working as a medical assistant and activism wasn’t on her radar, but a collision left her with disabilities that prevented her from continuing with her job. The landlords of her Central District apartment were understanding … for a time. They allowed her to pay about 75 percent of her $475 rent as she searched for new work. She survived on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families prior to earning disability payments. But she was evicted from her apartment once the backlog on her owed rent reached $1,000. With no safety net to fall back on, she was forced into homelessness for several years.
“I understood the eviction. I understood their point of view,” Owens told Seattle Weekly on Monday. Still, she said, “A lot of people fall through the cracks and lose their housing, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
So Owens took action. Over five years ago, she joined grassroots lobbying group Washington Community Action Network. She began attending rallies, lobbying in Olympia, and testifying at Seattle City Hall on behalf of low-income renters. Her diligence is finally paying off in the form of recently introduced state legislation that could make it more difficult for tenants to become evicted.
Although she’s been in public housing for the past 15 years, Owens continues to fight for greater tenant protections because she doesn’t want others to continue experiencing eviction. It’s all too common for Washington renters who are late on paying their rent to receive a three-day notice to vacate, regardless of extenuating circumstances like medical emergency and/or job loss, as was Owens’ case. Tenants can also be given less than 30 day eviction notices for any reason, making possible retaliatory evictions for tenants who raise concerns about the habitability of a rental.
But new legislation spearheaded by Washington CAN members and worker’s union WFSE Local 304 could change that. On Monday, Democratic State Representative Nicole Macri introduced legislation to increase tenant protections by outlawing no-cause evictions. The measure follows another bill she introduced on Jan. 10 to repeal the statewide ban on rent control. CAN organizers and Macri hope that these measures will help stabilize households and prevent homelessness by keeping people in their apartments in the first place.
In Washington, tenants have little protection against no-cause evictions, which can leave them homeless in less than a month. Tenants have limited ability to retain their apartment once they fail to pay rent, according to Housing Justice Project Managing Attorney Edmund Witter. In contrast, a commercial tenant has 30 days to pay off the back rent whether they have a lease or not. “Commercial tenants actually have more protection than residential tenants in Washington state,” Witter said. In Washington, tenants who are late on their payment can only retain their apartment if they’re on an unexpired lease and pay the full rent and legal fees within five days of an eviction notice.
However, judges in states including Ohio, New York, and California consider a person’s individual circumstances before ruling on an eviction.
The legislation introduced Monday enables tenants to contest an eviction in court and only allows the landlord to evict a tenant if they prove just cause. The bill extends the allowable period of defaulting on rent payment from three to 14 days.
A 1980 Seattle ordinance protects leased tenants from unjust cause evictions, but they lose that protection if their annual lease expires and they’re in between month-to-month leases. Monday’s legislation would also safeguard Seattle residents between leases from unjust-cause evictions.
“I think we need to make sure that we’re actually keeping … our people housed and trying to prevent evictions in the first place as opposed to spending a lot of money trying to rehouse them after they end up on the street,” Witter said. Evictions can not only cause homeless, it can also have life or death consequences for evicted tenants.
Witter shared the story of one client who committed suicide a few months ago after he lost his job at Boeing and defaulted on his rent. The client received an eviction notice and agreed that he would move out of the apartment after a certain period of time. However, Witter later heard from the landlord’s attorney that the client had committed suicide. He said it was unclear whether he’d died before the eviction took place or afterwards, but Witter believes that just-cause eviction legislation could have helped him. A 2015 study that looked at evictions and suicide rates in Sweden following 2008’s global financial crisis found that people who experienced eviction were four times more likely to commit suicide than those who had not.
Macri’s other bill takes aim at Washington’s 1981 ban on rent control, which has prevented Seattle from regulating rising rents like New York City and San Francisco. The ban came after Seattle voters rejected a ballot initiative to impose rent regulation in 1980.
Washington CAN’s Political Director Xochitl Maykovich says that stronger tenant protections are needed now more than ever. On Friday, Maykovich received a handwritten eight-page letter on yellow legal paper from a 65-year-old Newcastle man living on Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly Section 8 Housing). His letter stated that the poor are being “stamped out like a cigarette butt” by the rising rent and cost of living.
“The poor, middle class, eldery, handicapped like me are being forced into the streets due to pure greed. I’ve watched Seattle be destroyed by the greedy. I have been on the streets more than once in my life. It’s no fun on concrete,” Maykovich said, reading from the man’s letter and becoming increasingly emotional.
The letter continued, “I have never been as terrified about ending up on the streets as I am now.”