Despite having to conduct the session remotely, Washington’s state legislature accomplished some big things in 2021. Historic wins include a capital gains tax and a cap-and-invest climate program. Responding to widespread job loss, eviction threats, and foreclosure risk caused by the pandemic, the Democratic majority also made historic progress on housing relief.
Drawing on federal COVID-19 funding, lawmakers approved a whopping $1.6 billion for housing, with nearly half of that going to emergency rental assistance. To complement that financial support, they also passed a “just cause” eviction law and the first statewide right to legal counsel in the United States.
Washington needed bold action on housing. Since the pandemic shutdowns began in March 2020, over a million Washington residents have relied on unemployment benefits to pay for food, rent, utilities, and other living expenses. But as the economy has started to recover, and jobless claims have dropped, many tenants behind on rent are still relying on familial support and credit cards to make payments.
According to the latest Census Household Pulse Survey, forty percent of Washington tenants behind on rent are borrowing money from family and friends to catch up, while thirty-seven percent are utilizing credit cards or loans. People of color were hit the hardest: fourteen percent of Black and Asian renters reported that they were behind on rent, compared with half of that rate reported by white renters.
The pandemic only exacerbated Washington’s existing rental crisis, where, in 2019, forty-five percent of tenants were housing cost-burdened, spending over thirty percent of their income on rent. Over the past nine months, on average, eleven percent of Washington’s renter households reported that they were behind on rent.
The legislature’s strong response with rental assistance, affordable housing subsidies, and tenant protections will not only address the near-term housing instability crisis but will also help tenants stay in their homes as things transition back to a “normal” that leaves far too many Washingtonians housing insecure.
Emergency housing assistance and affordable housing investments
When Washington’s eviction moratorium expires on June 30th, renters across the state will once again be vulnerable to evictions for missed rent and utility payments. To help cover unpaid bills, Washington legislators directed $658 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 towards emergency rental and utility assistance, as well as $200 million towards foreclosure prevention and homeowner support.
Earlier in the session, lawmakers also allocated $355 million in federal rental assistance dollars from two of last year’s federal relief bills, a majority of which came from the December Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act . The 2020 federal emergency rental assistance is set to expire in September of 2022, while the 2021 federal allocation will expire in September of 2025.
To provide long-term support for renters, legislators also created a permanent emergency rental assistance fund. Under House Bill 1277, sponsored by Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-Spokane), document recording fees will increase by $100 to help pay for the new rental assistance fund as well as invest in permanent supportive housing, the home security fund, and the landlord mitigation program. Local governments charge document recording fees to register the purchase or sale of real estate.
This increase in document recording fees is expected to raise $146 million annually for three affordable housing and rental assistance funds—with $111 million going to the home security fund, $29 million for the affordable housing for all fund, and nearly $6 million for the landlord mitigation program. While sixty percent of the home security fund’s allocation is set aside for rent vouchers, rapid rehousing, and building acquisitions, the remaining $44 million can be used towards rental assistance. Eligible organizations, as well as households making eighty percent or below of the county’s Area Median Income (AMI), can qualify to distribute or receive rental assistance, respectively.
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With encouragement from affordable housing advocates, legislators matched last year’s historic investment of $175 million in the Housing Trust Fund. They also increased funding for the Housing and Essential Needs program by $16 million over the 2022-23 biennium to provide rental assistance and other support to low-income people unable to work due to physical or mental illnesses.
Washington’s legislature also passed House Bill 1083, sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-SeaTac), which updates the relocation coordination program for tenants forced to move from closed or converted mobile home parks. Under the bill, tenants can qualify for up to $17,000 in assistance for a multi-section home or up to $11,000 for a single-section home. Tenants may use the funds to either relocate their mobile home or secure alternative housing.
New statewide tenant protections emerge from the 2021 session
Following in the steps of Seattle, Washington passed the first statewide legal right to counsel for tenants in the United States. Senate Bill 5160, sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue), guarantees the right to an attorney to low-income tenants, defined as those who receive public assistance or with incomes at 200 percent or below of the federal poverty level.
Kuderer’s bill went further to prevent landlords from imposing late fees for nonpayment of rent between March 2020 and six months after the expiration of the state’s eviction moratorium, currently June 30th. If the tenant still owes rent six months after the moratorium ends (or when the public health emergency ends), the landlord must offer a repayment schedule. If tenants miss payments under the repayment plan, landlords can pursue up to $15,000 in reimbursement through the state’s landlord mitigation program. The bill also sets up an eviction resolution pilot program to help resolve landlord-tenant disputes before pursuing eviction. Under SB 5160, landlords also can’t report missed rent or evictions filed during the pandemic to future landlords.
After contentious debate through two sessions, lawmakers finally passed a “just cause” eviction bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle). The new law limits the reasons a landlord can evict tenants under month-to-month leases. Previously, landlords could end month-to-month tenancies with a twenty-day no-cause notice. House Bill 1236 designates a series of “just causes” for landlords to pursue eviction, including nonpayment of rent and utilities, violations of nuisance clauses, or if the owner intends to occupy or sell the unit. During the legislative process, the original bill was watered down to allow no-cause evictions for first-time leases between three months to a year, if the landlord provides a sixty-day notice before the end of the lease.
How will the Washington legislature continue to build on housing progress?
The legislature’s ambitious agenda in 2021 will help renters across the state stay in their homes and avoid displacement due to pandemic-related job loss and housing instability. The newly passed long-term rental assistance program and tenant protections will also mitigate future needs and provide alternatives to eviction.
These moves on housing were major accomplishments, which legislators should build on by continuing to invest in affordable housing, rental assistance, and tenant protections. To supplement this work, legislators can address one of the remaining critical pieces of the housing policy puzzle: zoning reforms to open up exclusive, single-family neighborhoods to a broader diversity of housing options. My colleague, Dan Bertolet, summed up the zoning proposals from this legislative session and proposed a new approach for legislators to consider next year.
As the state continues to face housing shortages and skyrocketing housing prices, the legislature can help address these issues by setting state standards to address historically exclusionary zoning policies and ensure that every city does its part to encourage inclusive, affordable communities.