It’s the beginning of the month, which means rent is due. But the COVID-19 pandemic has created an air of uncertainty for tenants who lost hours at work, or lost their jobs entirely, and are unsure how or if to pay rent. People are also unsure what exactly Washington’s temporary eviction moratorium means.
“We’ve been doing a lot of myth-busting. You do need to pay your rent,” said Elizabeth Fitzgearld, executive director of the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program.
At first, some renters thought the moratorium meant they don’t have to pay any rent for April. She’s seen a lot of “Facebook lawyering” where online groups are giving bad legal advice about what people should do. Tenants are also getting letters from their landlords that — depending on how they’re worded — may add to the confusion.
Fitzgearld recommends people who can’t afford their rent to call the Volunteer Lawyers Program first so an attorney can help them draft a payment plan. Verbal agreements don’t mean anything in court, so tenants and landlords need a written agreement. Fitzgearld believes landlords will be more amenable to agreements written by an attorney that result in them getting paid, even if the payment is spread out over several months.
Lyn Ayers, president of the Clark County Rental Association, agreed that a written arrangement is necessary to protect both tenant and landlord. Anyone unable to pay rent needs to contact their landlord, he said.
“Even a partial payment would help us out,” Ayers said. “Part of our concern is that people just take advantage of the moratorium and just not pay.”
Some landlords are offering discounts or other forms of rent relief. Ayers said he’s seen some landlords not charge late fees, accept partial rent or cancel rent increases. Bigger property management companies may offer temporary rent discounts or financial incentives for paying rent in full on time.
The Clark County Rental Association is encouraging its members to accommodate tenants’ needs where possible and not charge late fees. Several landlords have responded.
Meadow Verde Mobile Home Park, a 55-and-older community in Hazel Dell, is offering a $50 reduction in rent and is not charging guest fees.
Vancouver Housing Authority tenants who prove they lost income and applied for unemployment can receive a waiver of late fees for April. The housing authority is accepting partial rent payments with repayment agreements.
“We’re trying to remove any roadblocks for the tenants,” said Executive Director Roy Johnson.
The housing authority is reaching out to tenants through email and other means. Johnson said Thursday the housing authority has not received directives or additional funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He hopes the federal agency will provide money to offset the increased housing assistance payments Vancouver Housing Authority is making for its Section 8 clients.
Portland-based EkoLiving Apartments, which has rentals in Vancouver and Camas, is offering 25 percent off rent for April and May. There is no expectation that tenants will repay the discount.
“We want to alleviate some of the stress and financial pressure that has been placed on the shoulders of our residents,” EkoLiving CEO Mark Madden said in a news release.
Some landlords stand firm
On the flip side, some landlords insist their tenants pay their full rent on time.
One renter forwarded The Columbian a letter from property management company Sunworld Group that read: “There is no reason why any resident cannot pay the rent.” The letter cited unemployment benefits and stimulus checks from the federal government. It said landlords still have to pay lenders, utilities, insurance, taxes and cover repairs.
A partial rent payment would result in a $100 late fee, according to the renter, who wanted to remain anonymous.
In other cases, landlords are trying to evict tenants outside of the judicial eviction process.
Tim Murphy, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project’s Vancouver office, said landlords may use payment plan agreements to try to circumvent renter protections.
“We’ve seen a couple of these throughout the state,” he said.
Essentially, he said, landlords are trying to create alternative processes to get rid of tenants who can’t pay, which goes against the intent of the eviction moratorium. Rather than issue a 14-day notice to vacate for nonpayment of rent, landlords may send a 10-day notice to vacate for another problem, such as a guest staying too long.
A client of Murphy’s whose lease expires at the end of April received a notice to terminate. Her landlord is not letting her stay past this month, which is a no-cause eviction prohibited by the governor’s order, Murphy said. Also, orders from the state Supreme Court and Clark County Superior Court bar non-emergency evictions. The end of a lease is hardly an emergency, Murphy said.
“Especially because right now is a dangerous and difficult time to move for tenants, predatory attempts like this by landlords are highly problematic and risk contributing to the public health pandemic,” he said in an email.
In another case, a landlord told a prospective renter that her Section 8 rental voucher would not be accepted because of the coronavirus. This goes against Washington rent protections that say landlords can’t discriminate based on a tenant’s source of income.
“We know that landlords are trying to circumvent these protections and we’re trying to be responsive to that,” said Phillipe Knab, managing attorney at the Northwest Justice Project’s Vancouver office.
One of his clients, Anna Sakrisson, was recently evicted from a room she rented. Rather than going through the formal eviction court process, she felt bullied into leaving.
“I think stories like these are common stories,” Knab said.
Sakrisson said she was evicted shortly after her housemate was evicted. The landlord was worried about the spread of COVID-19. Sakrisson said she had only lived in the house for two weeks when she was told to leave.
“We’re in a crisis and landlords are taking advantage of it,” she said.
She’s working with the Northwest Justice Project to possibly get back some money. In the meantime, she’s tried to get into housing or shelter through Council for the Homeless and hasn’t had any luck. For now, she’s staying at a motel paid for by her unemployment check. She noticed a lot of cars full of belongings in the motel parking lot, an indication that others are in the same situation and face homelessness.
“Tomorrow where am I going to go? I don’t know,” Sakrisson said. “Our government really needs to step up and see what’s going on.”
The state Attorney General’s Office is encouraging people to file complaints online about any businesses violating Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent proclamations, including any landlords trying to go around the eviction moratorium.
Each county in Washington is interpreting the eviction situation differently depending on how its judicial system functions. Whereas Clark County isn’t letting people file an unlawful detainer lawsuit except in an emergency (such as for health or safety reasons), other jurisdictions may accept them telephonically, Fitzgearld said.
There are talks of possibly extending the eviction moratorium, which is supposed to end April 17. With the stay-home order recently extended to May 4 it’s unclear whether that deadline will stand.
Fitzgearld sent a letter to the governor’s Southwest Washington regional outreach representative calling for broadening and clarifying the eviction moratorium.
For one, her organization would like to see the protections be the same from county to county and extend to recreational vehicle and mobile home parks. The Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program is also requesting landlords accept mandatory payment plans with plenty of time for tenants to pay back rent with no late fees, a prohibition on 10-day notices to comply or vacate, and postponement of telephonic show-cause eviction hearings.
Just because landlords’ attorneys can’t file evictions right now doesn’t mean there won’t be a tidal wave of eviction filings once the moratorium is lifted, Fitzgearld said.
Still, the COVID-19 pandemic’s full impact on the rental landscape remains to be seen. Ayers, with the Clark County Rental Association, believes it will become much clearer in a couple of weeks.
“There’s so much we don’t know at this stage,” he said.