Washington State Advocates Secure Wins for Renters’ Rights and Funding for Affordable Housing

Affordable housing advocates in Washington State won significant housing and homelessness victories in the 2021 Legislative session. The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, an NLIHC state partner, pushed lawmakers in the state to pass bills that prevent jurisdictions from banning shelters and supportive housing, create a dedicated source of funding for ongoing rental assistance and housing stabilization efforts, and establish state-level renter protections.

State lawmakers approved a two-year state budget that extends through mid-2023 and appropriates $10.6 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds and $59 billion in state revenue. This appropriation includes $658 million in federal resources to extend the state’s rental assistance program.

Washington has had a moratorium on residential evictions in place since March 2020 that is set to end on June 30. For the moratorium to expire without causing mass evictions, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance pushed lawmakers to pass a suite of legislation and budget investments to create an “off-ramp.”

Legislators passed S.B. 1277, providing permanent funding for eviction prevention and housing stability services through the creation of a new $100 document recording fee on real estate transactions. The fee will generate almost $150 million per year. Twenty percent of the funds will go toward operating permanent supportive housing and a small amount will go toward a landlord mitigation program that reimburses landlords for excessive damage. Sixty percent of the remaining funds are designated for project-based vouchers, housing services, rapid rehousing, emergency housing, and acquisition, with a priority on serving people who are chronically homeless or living unsheltered. Funds can also be used for the state’s Eviction Prevention Rental Assistance Program, rental assistance for people experiencing homelessness, foreclosure prevention services, and tenant education and legal assistance.

The Eviction Prevention Rental Assistance Program will provide resources to households at risk of becoming homeless or experiencing housing instability. This permanent program mirrors Washington’s emergency rental assistance program, which is currently disbursing federal COVID-19 relief funds. In prioritizing racial equity, the program requires that communities of color be served in proportion to the number of people at risk for homelessness by race. The bill also sets aside funding to be awarded to community-based organizations that are governed by and serve marginalized communities that have long suffered from discriminatory housing policies.

State lawmakers passed measures that provide renters facing eviction with a right to counsel and establish just cause eviction protections. S.B. 5160 establishes a right to counsel to ensure that tenants who receive public assistance or have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line and are facing eviction have free legal representation. While cities across the country, including Seattle, have enacted similar measures, Washington became the first state to enact state-level right to counsel.

The passage of H.B. 1236 established just cause protections, which limit the reasons for which tenants can be evicted and require landlords to state a reason when ending or refusing to renew a lease. In Washington, the reasons that an ongoing lease can be terminated include nonpayment of rent, violation of a program requirement of subsidized housing, unlawful activities, or if a landlord wants to live in or sell the unit. The bill effectively ends the practice of giving tenants “no cause” notices with little advance warning.

Lawmakers also invested $175 million into the state Housing Trust Fund and $120 million to rent or purchase properties that can be quickly converted to shelter or housing. The budget set aside $6 million to encourage cities to tap Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) resources to move people experiencing homelessness into non-congregate shelters by dedicating funds to cover costs that FEMA rejects. In total, the legislature dedicated $1.7 billion to meet the housing needs of people experiencing homelessness.

These three bills and budget investments make up the off-ramp from the eviction moratorium that advocates say is necessary to prevent evictions. Advocates continue to push for Governor Inslee to extend the eviction moratorium as the pandemic continues and at least until the protections created by the legislature are in operation. According to the Census Pulse Survey, over 160,000 people in Washington were behind on rent in March and at least 350,000 were meeting their spending needs using unsustainable methods like borrowing from friends or family, selling assets, or using their savings. People of color, who are disproportionately renters, disproportionately work in low-wage jobs, work in low-wage jobs, and were hit hardest by the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, made up the majority of people behind on rent. The eviction moratorium and these tenant protections will protect thousands of Washington residents and prevent racial inequity in housing outcomes from growing worse.

The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance worked closely with other organizations to pass H.B. 1220, which prevents cities from banning shelters, transitional housing, or permanent supportive housing; requires jurisdictions planning under the Growth Management Act to identify policies that create racially disparate impacts, displacement, and exclusion; and to identify and implement policies to undo that harm.

According to Washington Low Income Housing Alliance Executive Director Rachael Myers, “We had extraordinary champions in the legislature fighting for these policies but without a ground game that included sustained and persistent advocacy, we wouldn’t have seen this level of progress. Tenants who were at risk of losing their homes told their stories in testimony, at virtual legislative meetings, and to the media, over and over. In the last year over 6,500 advocates across the state contacted their lawmakers calling on them to protect people experiencing homelessness and prevent people from losing their homes during the pandemic.

We’ve never seen that level of advocacy before, and it worked! These measures not only provide critical protections and resources for renters struggling to stay housed amidst the ongoing pandemic, but they establish more permanent housing resources to address the underlying affordable housing crisis. We’ll come out of the pandemic in a better place than we started – and we intend to keep building on that momentum.”

For more information about the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, please contact Rachael Myers at [email protected] or visit: https://www.wliha.org/

To read more about legislative victories visit: https://www.wliha.org/blog/sine-die-2021