October 2018 Bar Bulletin
By Andrew Prazuch
New Report Co-Authored by KCBA's Housing Justice Project
In September, KCBA’s Housing Justice Project (HJP), in partnership with the Seattle Women’s Commission, released an eye-opening study on the causes of eviction in Seattle. The study, “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle,” is based on a review of all 1,218 residential eviction actions filed in Seattle in 2017, and incorporates surveys and interviews of many HJP clients during 2018.
Special acknowledgement is due to our HJP Managing Attorney Edmund Witter, along with the rest of our HJP staff and many volunteers who assisted with the research done over the last year to support this report. If you react as I did to the following highlights, you will be both better informed about the realities that low- and moderate-income families and individuals face as renters in our community, and outraged that we don’t have a more compassionate eviction process in our state.
Reasons for Eviction
The study begins with a review of what factors are pushing renters into eviction proceedings. The vast majority (87%) of cases are due to nonpayment of rent, followed by lease violations (8%), and a few miscellaneous issues (5%). While very high, that 87% isn’t unexpected, but drilling down deeper into how much nonpayment is causing eviction is surprising. Over half the time (52%), it is because the tenant is behind one month or less in rent. And we’re not talking about being several thousand dollars behind; in over half the cases (56%), the amount due ranged from $500 to $2,000.
In one case, the amount overdue was $15.67. Seriously, $15.67 was all that was needed to prevent the eviction process from beginning. And the cause could be something very sympathetic such as one example cited of a 20-year tenant being in the hospital for two weeks.
The eviction process, it turns out, starts faster than it takes for a first-class letter to travel coast to coast in our country. The study found that the three-day notice to pay or vacate was most likely to be served between the 4th and 6th of the month. Think about that: If a tenant owed rent on October 1 and it wasn’t received by October 4, an eviction notice would be filed. And in some cases the landlord would not stop the eviction process once started, even if the late rent was paid.
Legal Fees Can Easily Exceed Amount of Overdue Rent
Another striking data point in the report is the disproportionate amount of legal fees being assessed against tenants in eviction proceedings. The median attorney’s fees charged were $416.19 and median court costs made up another $358.98, or $775.17 per eviction case.
Think about that figure in context of a recent Federal Reserve report that found 40% of Americans could not come up with $400 in the event of an emergency. Can we be surprised that there is often no way for the tenant to come up with funds needed to keep his or her apartment?
While not part of the statistical analysis, I want to share the real impact of three actual eviction cases discussed in the report, and the impact of attorney’s fees and court costs. For example, Renter #1 owed $81.94 of his $856 monthly rent; legal fees and costs added another $596.49 to the tenant’s bill, almost an extra full-month’s rent payment. Renter #2 owed $188.83 of a $1,779 monthly lease payment; legal fees added $1,608.47 to his bill. Renter #3 owed $600 toward a $1,150 rental amount, but was charged $3,400 in legal fees.
Frequently these fees are assessed in default judgments where the renter isn’t even present to explain to the court that he or she may be temporarily unemployed, in the hospital or dealing with a death in the family (the most cited reasons for falling behind on rent). And inconceivably, Washington law doesn’t grant judges the discretion to waive attorney’s fees and court costs.
Other Findings and Recommendations
The 84-page report is full of many more findings, including disturbing data that minorities are far more likely to face eviction than Caucasian tenants. Compelling data also are included about the significant impact of legal counsel in representing tenants in eviction proceedings. Of the 1,218 cases in Seattle in 2017, 350 were contested and, of those, 320 tenants were represented by an attorney. HJP volunteers handled 299 of the cases, i.e., 85% of contested cases involved our bar’s volunteer attorneys.
We were able to negotiate stipulations in 52% of the cases (versus 14% for pro se tenants), payment plans for 26% of the tenants (versus 11% for pro se tenants), and kept evictions off the records of 21% of tenants (versus 2% for pro se tenants). That latter point is so important as an eviction on a tenant’s record could keep them out of future rental housing.
The report includes many obvious and overdue policy recommendations that could help prevent homelessness while still protecting landlords’ ability to receive income from their properties. Among these are requiring large landlord corporations to offer payment plans and increasing government subsidies to tenants at risk of eviction.
Many major metropolitan areas, including New York, have such programs, which makes evictions there very rare. Remember that $15 example from earlier? How much money and well-being of a citizen would society have saved by covering that $15 versus doing nothing and sending that person into the world of homelessness?
I invite you to read the full report at www.kcba.org/hjp. And if you’re moved to get involved, please consider volunteering with our Housing Justice Project as well as engaging with our Public Policy Committee. The latter will be where the bar begins advocacy work to advance changes to our current laws. I hope you will contact me for more information about either option.
Andrew Prazuch is KCBA’s executive director. He can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (206-267-7061).