Washington state to implement “right to counsel” for low-income tenants facing eviction

Jessie Brandt, Staff Reporter

Washington recently became the first state in the country to pass legislation guaranteeing lawyers to low-income tenants facing eviction. Instituting this “right to counsel” is meant to meet the tide of pandemic evictions; this law is only one aspect of a whole slew of measures to support tenants — but according to legislators and tenant advocates, it still isn’t enough to keep Washington residents in their homes. 

A study from the University of Washington and University of California, Berkeley, revealed that from 2010 to 2017, 93% of plaintiffs (landlords) in Washington eviction cases had lawyers, while only 11% of defendants (renters) did.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, 11% of Washington tenants, or over 160,000 households, were expected to be overdue on rent at the end of March 2021. 7.2 million households nationally are behind on rent. 

Walla Walla City Council member Riley Clubb, in an interview with the Union-Bulletin, spoke on the need for measures to support Walla Walla residents in eviction proceedings. 

“The economic shock, the financial loss of income is going to happen. . . . Do you want the loss to fall on people who are being asked to leave their home?” Clubb said. “Or to shift that up the ladder, if you will, where those people are holding properties that are not their own home, and the consequence for them won’t be necessarily leaving their home.”

An amendment tacked onto Senate Bill 5160, the legislation granting the right to counsel, will lift Washington’s eviction moratorium on June 30; the state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid disclosed to Seattle Times that not enough additional defense attorneys will be hired by then to meet the needs of tenants.

“It’s not the right policy and it’s just going to end up doing far more harm than good,” Sen. Patty Kuderer, the bill’s sponsor, said of the impending end to the eviction moratorium in an interview with the Seattle Times

Right to counsel reduces the likelihood of eviction by protecting tenants, according to Rachel Elfenbein, Advocacy Coordinator at Community Council, a support organization for the residents of Columbia and Walla Walla counties.

“Landlords almost always come to court with their own lawyers because they can afford them,” Elfenbein said. “But tenants, especially low-income tenants, often don’t come to court with a lawyer because they can’t afford it. And so it’s unfair, and it’s an unbalanced process.” 

Elfenbein said that in addition to the right to counsel, there are other measures in place to meet tenants’ needs coming from both the state and federal levels. These include emergency utility assistance programs, a permanent state fund for emergency rental assistance (made available through organizations like Blue Mountain Action Council in Walla Walla) and new housing vouchers and funds for affordable housing through the American Rescue Plan Act signed in by President Biden. 

Even the record amounts of committed money aren’t enough, tenant rights advocates say.

“These are record investments, and we still need more money, because we know that we had a housing crisis before the COVID crisis. Those pre-existing issues still need to be dealt with,” Elfenbein said. “We just know it’s not enough to meet all the needs across the state.” 

Since April 2020, landlords have been barred from raising rent throughout the duration of the moratorium. Elfenbein said this may soon change, and could potentially hit Walla Walla residents hard. 

Housing prices in the Walla Walla region rose during the pandemic; in turn, landlords may raise rents once the eviction moratorium is lifted. Economic recovery, seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, often depends on the creation of minimum wage jobs, Elfenbein said.

“The concern is that even though we’ll have these emergency protections in place for the next year, that long term . . . if we have minimum wage jobs added and the rents rise, housing will continue to be unaffordable for working-class people,” Elfenbein said. “Perhaps even more unaffordable than it was before.”