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Legal groups seek moratorium on evictions in Clark County

Northwest Justice Project’s Vancouver office and the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program are urging Clark County Superior Court judges to adopt a moratorium on evictions.

An email sent Monday afternoon says evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic pose serious public health risks and asks for a moratorium until April 24, which coincides with the current scheduled end to school closures.

“We recognize the court is in a difficult position when balancing the rights of tenants and landlords in these trying times. However, given the harsh impact evictions have on low-income communities during a public health pandemic and the logistical difficulty of holding these large dockets remotely while still providing access to counsel, these proceedings must be stayed,” said the email sent from Northwest Justice Project staff attorney Tim Murphy.

Communities across the country have already postponed evictions including New York, Boston and Seattle. Last weekend, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered a temporary halt on residential evictions for non-payment of rent, according to The Seattle Times. “The order says landlords may not issue termination (pay-or-vacate) notices for non-payment of rent, may not initiate eviction actions in court and may not advance termination notices already posted. For existing eviction cases, Durkan’s order should be a defense in court. In cases where a tenant doesn’t appear for a hearing, the court may postpone the case to a later date. Tenants must continue making rent payments, to the extent they can, the mayor’s office said, and those struggling with money should work with their landlords on payment plans. But Durkan’s order prohibits late fees and other charges for late rent payments,” The Times’ Daniel Beekman wrote.

In an interview with The Columbian, Murphy described the proposed moratorium in Clark County as “hitting the pause button” on nonessential evictions such as nonpayment of rent and minor lease violations. He noted that holding the Friday eviction docket doesn’t make sense because it requires tenants and lawyers to pack into a courtroom, violating Public Health’s recommendation to avoid gatherings where people are in close contact with others.

Elizabeth Fitzgearld, executive director of the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program, said without a roof over your head, it’s difficult to follow those recommendations to protect against the novel coronavirus. Her organization provides free civil legal aid for low-income people and has lawyers available to counsel people every Friday during the eviction docket.

If the docket, also called the unlawful detainer docket, were to happen by telephone, tenants facing eviction could miss their hearings or miss out on help from volunteer lawyers.

“We’re trying to think big picture of what are the dominoes that are going to fall,” Murphy said. “I think this is the best step to take at this point.”

The idea is that tenants facing eviction would not be ordered to leave their homes until April 24. At that point the situation would be re-evaluated.

The Volunteer Lawyers Program and Northwest Justice Project are asking the court system to consider the public health consequences of evictions and possible increased homelessness, particularly when some tenants may lose work or not be able to go to work, Murphy said.

“This pandemic will most sharply impact people with disabilities, wage workers and low-income families who disproportionately lack the same access to housing, income, paid sick leave and health care,” the email said.

Legislative or judicial?

A moratorium could result in a backlog of evictions and a larger eviction docket when the situation stabilizes. Fitzgearld said her organization is prepared to help more clients if that happens. For now, the Volunteer Lawyers Program is providing scaled-down services to protect against the virus.

Clark County Superior Court Presiding Judge Scott Collier said Monday he hadn’t had a chance to read Murphy’s email but noted there would be a judges’ meeting Tuesday. A potential moratorium on evictions is further down the list of things to discuss at the meeting.

“I have no idea what we’ll do with that request at this point,” Collier said.

He noted that a statewide moratorium ordered by the governor could provide consistency as opposed to a county-by-county approach, which could get complicated.

“Is this more of a legislative function than a judicial function because it’s a social issue?” Collier said.

Balancing the rights of tenants and landlords is something that needs to be discussed, he said. Tenants already have protections in place, and it’s unclear how a moratorium would address landlords not getting paid. The line between the court system laying down the law and offering social services has long been a blurry one, Collier added.

For now, Friday’s eviction docket is still scheduled, with Judge Jennifer Snider presiding. It’s unclear what, if any, decision will be made regarding evictions. Collier said the ripple effect of COVID-19 on the judicial system could be wide, impacting a variety of people and cases beyond those on the unlawful detainer docket.

“This is all very fluid,” he said.


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