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Evicted Over $49: What Happens When Seattle's Poorest Tenants Can't Make Rent
Dominick Andrus fell behind on rent. The two-week "pay or vacate" notice landed on his apartment door in February. He owed $155.20.
For others, it's been less: $49, $50, $95.
Andrus lives in a beige seven-story Capitol Hill apartment building owned and operated by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA). He spent three years waiting for a space in Seattle's rare public housing. Now that he's there, he lives precariously. Partially blind since birth, Andrus lives off of Social Security and food stamps. He readily admits that he's missed rent before, sometimes because of unexpected bills. This time, he says, his food stamps disbursement decreased and he fell behind. When he did get the money together to pay his rent in March, SHA had already filed a case against him in King County Superior Court.
"They were giving me an option. 'You can move out if you want to,'" Andrus says. "I have no place to live."
Eviction is a destabilizing experience for anyone, but the stakes for those in public housing are particularly high. SHA and the King County Housing Authority (KCHA) primarily serve people making $28,800 or less for a family of four. Rent is usually set at 30 percent of income. Because of that, public housing tenants can face eviction for financial sums that appear surprisingly small but can quickly become insurmountable.
Weighing a potential eviction, Andrus speaks in quick, clipped sentences, eager to get the conversation over with. "It's been stressful," he says. "I'm trying not to think about it."
Andrus is one of hundreds of public housing tenants in Seattle who have faced possible eviction in the last five years. During that time period, SHA initiated evictions against tenants 473 times, according to a review of court records. Last year, that worked out to an average of two eviction cases filed per week. SHA operates about 8,000 housing units. In comparison, KCHA filed 84 eviction cases for its 3,700 units of low-income subsidized housing. (KCHA also owns thousands of units of higher income housing, where separate property management companies handle evictions.)
Public housing tenants represent a unique corner of Seattle's affordability crisis. With rents based off of income, tenants sometimes pay as little as $100 a month. In the private market, meanwhile, the median Seattle renter now pays $1,448. The city has joined the list of the five most expensive big cities for renters. Nearly half of renters here are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and 22 percent spend more than half their income on rent.
For those lucky enough to sign a lease with Seattle Housing Authority, getting kicked out can be financially disastrous.
The ripple effects of eviction are particularly severe in public housing cases. Back rent, legal fees, and other charges add up quickly. One tenant who fell behind $95 ended up owing the housing authority nearly $2,000. Nonpayment of those debts can effectively lock tenants out of both private and public housing. Meanwhile, legal representation, which can improve outcomes for tenants facing eviction, is hard to come by in housing court. The volunteer attorneys who take on eviction cases operate on a shoestring budget.
For all these reasons, advocates say Seattle should work more with tenants who can't make rent. Otherwise, many will wind up on the street.
"You're essentially resigning these people to homelessness," says Xochitl Maykovich, a tenant organizer with the Washington Community Action Network. "And you're resigning people who are already vulnerable."
Andrus's case ended with good news, for now. SHA cut a deal requiring him to pay his rent and follow on-site rules. Other cases end with less favorable outcomes.
Over five years, about 56 percent of SHA's 473 eviction cases resulted in a sheriff's order evicting the tenants. Among KCHA cases, about 71 percent resulted in evictions. The rest had their cases dismissed or settled. In those cases, some reached an agreement to pay rent. But other times tenants agreed to leave willingly, meaning they were still left to find housing.
By number of units, Seattle's public housing is dwarfed by that in larger cities like New York. Yet, while some tenant advocates in Seattle are questioning public housing evictions, New York's housing authority faces the opposite criticism.
Last year, New York City inspectors criticized the city's housing authority for not evicting enough tenants.
New York City Housing Authority operates 176,066 public housing apartments. The agency began eviction proceedings against 942 people in 2014, but evicted only 45 of them, a 40 percent drop from 2011, according to media reports. In 2017, SHA filed 111 eviction cases with 54 ending in eviction, according to court records.
Edmund Witter, managing attorney at King County's Housing Justice Project. photo by Jack Petterborg
Edmund Witter, managing attorney at King County's Housing Justice Project, knows both housing authorities well. He moved to Seattle from New York, where he also represented tenants. Witter says he's been shocked at what he's seen in Washington.
The laws and legal culture in New York are far more favorable to tenants than in Washington, Witter claims. He says New York judges and lawyers were more willing to give tenants time to catch up on rent before evicting them. And in Seattle, he argues SHA is particularly aggressive.
"[The idea that] the tenant needs to learn something from, god forbid, being poor—that's in the culture here," Witter says. "That's a problem in the SHA culture. It's a problem in the court system."
Getting behind on small amounts of rent can quickly snowball for public housing tenants, court records show. While some tenants were evicted after falling six or more months behind on rent or for alleged misbehavior, other cases began with small sums.
By the time SHA evicted one tenant last summer for owing one month's $49 rent, she owed another $400 in late fees, eviction and process server fees, and more. Another tenant faced eviction after failing to pay $95 in rent. She ended up owing more than 15 times that. By the time she was evicted, the tenant owed $350 for attorney fees, $133 for a sheriff's fee, and nearly $1,000 in sundry charges including utility charges, late fees, and eviction and process server fees.
Last fall, SHA filed a case against a 20-year-old mother of two who the agency said was behind on rent by $255. SHA sought more than $1,400, including $444 in back rent, $350 in attorney fees, and a $133 sheriff's fee. When the woman wrote to the court asking the court to dismiss the judgment, she said she missed her court date because she was on medications for the flu and bronchitis and was disoriented. Two months later, SHA agreed to allow her to stay. By that time, she owed a total of $2,761. A nonprofit helped her pay.
Late last year, SHA prepared to evict another tenant after he failed to pay two months of $226 rent. When a process server arrived to issue the eviction notice, there was no answer. The server realized there had been a fire in the unit, and a neighbor said the man had not been living there since the fire, according to court documents. SHA then amended its legal filings to hold him liable for $100,000 in damages to the apartment. The court has since dismissed the case.
KCHA uses outside counsel to pursue evictions. SHA has a lawyer on-staff. Yet both agencies charge hundreds of dollars in attorney fees.
Those fees can have lasting effects for tenants. Eviction proceedings, whether they're eventually settled or result in eviction, will almost always show up on a tenant's screening report the next time they apply for private or public housing. The debt follows them, too. It can hurt their ability to receive housing assistance in the future.
Federal law allows housing authorities to consider past evictions when accepting new tenants. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development also requires housing authorities to report debts tenants owe. Other housing authorities can see those debts when considering new tenants. SHA's admission policies state the agency will not accept tenants who have outstanding debt to any housing authority unless they are up to date on a repayment plan.
When the sheriff's deputies told Sarah Stewart she had five minutes to leave her Green Lake apartment, she grabbed her medications, her laptop, and her laundry basket because she knew it had one of her work uniforms in it. She carried those belongings to her 1998 Honda CR-V and has been spending most nights in her car ever since.
Stewart spent months battling with SHA before her eviction in March. She says the agency miscalculated her rent based on her income and unfairly increased her rent after she'd already signed a lease. SHA disputes Stewart's claim and in court records has argued it accurately based her rent off her income.
Stewart has a degenerative chronic illness that prevents her from working full-time. She makes about $1,100 a month. In court documents, SHA claims Stewart failed to pay two months of rent. After she signed an agreement to repay the back rent, she still did not make her rent, according to the documents. SHA issued Stewart an eviction notice in October. After months of volleying in court, Stewart finally prepared for eviction in March. Now she spends her days working, visiting meal programs and other social services, and sorting through the belongings she hurriedly moved into a storage unit. Between back rent, attorney fees, and the fee for the sheriff to evict her, Stewart now owes SHA nearly $2,500. Until she agrees to pay that, Stewart will have difficulty accessing other types of subsidized housing.
For now, she looks each night for a safe place to park, usually settling in Ballard. She's met other people sleeping in vehicles after losing their homes or struggling to pay high medical bills, she says. "There are definitely a lot of others out there like me."
In an SHA-owned Central District town house, Kimberly Mustafa is worried about eviction, and not for the first time. Mustafa moved to Seattle with her ex-husband, but says she left him because he was violent toward her. She now lives in SHA housing with her 17-year-old daughter, primarily off Social Security. Her check arrives on the second Wednesday of every month. That means her rent, which is due at the start of the month, is often late. Court records filed by SHA say Mustafa has demonstrated a "habitual failure to pay rent" and failed to make payments according to an agreement she made with the agency last year. According to those records, she owes $1,683 in rent and $1,726 in sundry charges, plus to-be-determined legal fees. She has now signed an agreement to leave the property by June 30.
"I never imagined a world like this for me," Mustafa says. She says she's seen neighbors, including one family with four kids, end up homeless after SHA evicted them. They showed up at her door, and she let them stay the night.
Mustafa, like other tenants in her situation, sought help on the third floor of the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. There, tenants stream into the office of the Housing Justice Project (HJP), a largely volunteer-run program that provides legal assistance for tenants. Unlike criminal cases, eviction proceedings do not trigger the right to an attorney.
Lawyers and legal aides squeeze past each other to make copies and consult managing attorney Edmund Witter on legal strategy. In the hallway, tenants gather on long wooden benches at one end of the hall, tapping on cell phones and clutching folders of paperwork. At the other end of the hallway, landlords wait with their attorneys.
Housing Justice Project lawyers hurry back and forth between the two sides, trying to negotiate agreements preventing tenants from losing their housing. They either strike a deal or make their case to a judge. Most of the lawyers are volunteers, meaning tenants almost always have a different lawyer for each step of the process, rather than one lawyer representing them throughout their case. Between two clinics in Seattle and Kent, HJP has three paid lawyers on staff. Another 70 to 80 lawyers volunteer for the project, handling nearly 2,000 eviction cases a year. The organization operates on a $350,000 budget. Although some other regional cities kick in funding and about half of HJP's clients live in Seattle, the project gets no funding from the City of Seattle, Witter says.
A lack of legal representation can set tenants up for failure from the start. A nonscientific review of cases in Chicago found that tenants with legal representation were able to buy more time before being evicted. In New York, tenants were 77 percent less likely to be evicted when they had legal representation. Late last year, New York became the first city to grant low-income tenants a right to counsel. A report from New York City's Independent Budget Office found that giving poor tenants free lawyers during evictions and foreclosures could cost the city between $173 million and $276 million a year, while simultaneously saving $143 million a year in homeless shelter costs.
Seattle has taken only small steps to legally equip poor tenants facing eviction. Last year, Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold led an effort to fund a pilot program to help low-income incarcerated people access legal aid to avoid eviction and other issues. The program paired civil lawyers with public defenders to help them address "collateral consequences" of their underlying conviction. The council has since expanded the program to allow civil attorneys to directly represent clients.
Eviction is almost entirely ignored in the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, one of the city's driving housing plans. In 2016, Seattle's Human Services Department spent about $5.2 million on eviction prevention and tenant services. However, a consultant's report on how the city spends homelessness funding warned against spending money on people facing eviction as a form of homelessness prevention. "Since most people do not become homeless straight from an eviction," the authors wrote, the city should focus its spending on people who are already homeless or facing an imminent threat of ending up on the streets, rather than people who've received an eviction notice.
Mark Chattin, director of legal services at the Legal Action Center, would not comment specifically on SHA, but he said debt can drag renters down for years. The Legal Action Center focuses on preventing evictions before tenants end up in court. The organization provides legal assistance, help paying off debts, and other services. Chattin says it has historically been difficult to find much public funding for eviction prevention, as government officials instead prioritize people who are already homeless. "We could solve this problem," he says.
As some tenants struggle to hold on to their public housing, thousands more wait for a chance to move in.
SHA and other agencies have encountered huge demand in recent years, with thousands of people on waiting lists for public housing.
Against the backdrop of that demand and the city's worsening homelessness crisis, SHA and KCHA representatives say they view eviction as a last resort.
"Obviously, advocates are trying to paint SHA in some way as punitive," SHA spokesperson Kerry Coughlin says. "It just defies logic. It's not in our mission to do that."
Bill Cook, director of property management for KCHA, says his agency has worked to change the way its property managers think about eviction. KCHA used to have "old-school property managers [who thought that] if someone breaks the rules... they're gone." In the last decade, Cook says, the agency has spent more time evaluating each case to send the message that evictions won't be rubber-stamped. SHA staff said they offer tenants payment plans and connections to assistance programs if they fall behind on their rent.
Witter and his predecessor at the Housing Justice Project, Rory O'Sullivan, dispute that characterization. They say SHA is quick to take tenants to court and particularly unforgiving once there. Witter cited a recent KCHA case to illustrate the difference in leniency between SHA and a nearby agency. A tenant with schizophrenia faced potential eviction for refusing to let management staff into his apartment to kill bedbugs. KCHA connected with the tenant's family to help convince him to allow them inside. The tenant got to stay. (In a separate interview, KCHA staff also referenced this case as an example of their help for tenants.)
"They're willing to sort of work with this," Witter says of KCHA. "They don't want to put him out on the streets. And he is a bigger high-needs case than anyone I've seen at an SHA building."
In some cases, Witter says SHA has opposed efforts to help tenants get housing in the future after they've been evicted. Thanks to a statewide law passed in 2016, Washington tenants can now seek "orders of limited dissemination," which prevents eviction records from appearing on screening reports in order to make it easier to get housing.
Courts can issue these orders if the tenant wasn't actually evicted, if they prevailed in court, or when "other good cause exists." Landlords, including SHA, can argue against the orders, granting them a tremendous say in how easy it will be for the tenant to find new housing.
Records show King County Superior Court judges have issued orders blocking eviction records from screening reports in only a handful of public housing cases. Witter says SHA opposes the orders more often than is apparent in court records because these negotiations don't always happen in writing. If tenants can't pay SHA what they owe, lawyers will try to negotiate with SHA to buy them more time before having to move out. In that process, they will sometimes ask for these orders of limited dissemination. But SHA is often "adamantly opposed to these orders," Witter says.
James Fearn, SHA's general counsel, says there's debate within his organization about whether to argue against these orders at all.
"There are people who very much favor resisting them when there has been an eviction of a person who was what we felt to be a threat to other residents," Fearn says. "Then there are people who say never under any circumstance, that SHA houses poor people and it should never take a position where it could prevent a poor person from being housed."
The issue cuts to the heart of SHA's dual role as both a landlord and a service organization.
"SHA is predominantly a landlord," Fearn says.
SHA's mission statement says the organization's goal is to "enhance the Seattle community by creating and sustaining decent, safe, and affordable living environments that foster stability and increase self-sufficiency for people with low incomes."
"I hold them to a different standard," Witter says, emphasizing that SHA is a public agency. "Their behavior is supposed to be a little bit more equitable."