An 80-year-old Spokane woman with a degenerative back condition is told to clean up her cluttered apartment, where movers stacked boxes far taller than her 4-foot-6-inch frame and never helped to unpack them. Friends who helped with previous moves have since passed away. She is evicted in early April with plans to stay with friends on alternating days.
A single mom with three kids is faced with taking an eviction notice to a hearing where her attorney might prevail, or settling with the landlord and moving out. She goes with the less risky option and gets out of the unit.
An elderly man learns that the "nuisance" his landlords claim he's causing doesn't meet the legal definition, so he could have a strong case to make in court. But if it means testifying and getting grilled with questions from his landlord's attorney, he's not interested.
"I'm not going to force my client to endure additional trauma and go through that process," explains Alicia Kingston, one of the attorneys working under the new Eviction Prevention Unit at the Northwest Justice Project. "Inherently, this system is not set up in a way that is equal."
Previously, fewer than 8 percent of tenants in Washington had legal representation at any point in the eviction process, according to the University of Washington Evictions Project. Attorneys say the vast majority of landlords, meanwhile, had a lawyer arguing on their behalf in court.
So a year ago this month, lawmakers in Washington state passed a new law ensuring that tenants facing eviction will get an attorney if they can't afford one. (Most can't.)
While many are familiar with the right to legal counsel offered to those who go through the criminal justice system, this is the first time superior courts around the state have been required to appoint attorneys in civil eviction cases.
"Our hope is... that this is a good way to keep people housed, and a cost-effective way to keep communities in place, especially given the housing markets we're seeing in places like Spokane, where the vacancy rate is so close to zero," says Philippe Knab, the eviction defense program manager for the state's Office of Civil Legal Aid, which ensures legal representation for people around the state.
Northwest Justice Project and other law offices around the state are now offering legal counsel to indigent tenants with the goal of somewhat correcting the power imbalance that has long existed under Washington's court system.
Even if attorneys aren't able to completely prevent the need for a tenant to move out, in the several months that the program has been operational, many have been able to negotiate settlements with landlords that result in an outcome both can agree upon. One example might be agreeing to have the tenant move out by a certain date in exchange for not having an official eviction on their record, which would make it far harder to find a new place to live.
"I really want them to know that it's definitely worth having an attorney to represent you, to assist you if you qualify," says attorney Edith Martinez, who is assigned tenant cases via the Spokane County Bar Association. "There is hope out there, and I don't know that enough tenants see that light at the end of the tunnel."
While many evictions are focused on unpaid rent, landlords can also claim a tenant is creating a nuisance or breaking a section of their lease. They may claim a tenant is piling up garbage too high, or smoking in their unit, or participating in an illegal activity and therefore violating their lease.
In 80-year-old Mariam's case (she requested the Inlander only use her first name), her possessions were the focus. Specifically, the property management company took pictures inside her unit multiple times showing boxes stacked high and claiming other nuisance issues such as pests. Mariam says mice were also an issue for neighbors in the building, and she eliminated the ones in her unit with the use of traps they shared.
As for the clutter, she felt out of control of the situation.
At the age of 63, Mariam had been hit by a drunk driver, and it took years for her feet and legs to heal. Though she'd worked all her life until that point, she was also dealing with a degenerative back condition that shrank her over time from 5 feet, 2 inches to 4 feet, 6 inches, and ultimately caused her to stop working.
Mariam moved into this new apartment in 2020 after her previous landlord took back the home where she'd lived for six years. She only had three steps to her old door, but now she was coping with two dozen steps to get home.
When movers helped her get into this place, she says they stacked the boxes taller than her slight frame, and she couldn't get them down for fear they'd fall and hurt her. She doesn't have a strong local support system.
"What happened to me could happen to anybody," she says. "Some people have more people helping them."
Ultimately, her new property managers took photos of the belongings cluttering her unit and built a case to evict her, which moved forward this March.
"They showed [the photos] at the court hearing I had. That's kind of embarrassing, but when I can't lift stuff and I'm frustrated, I'm sorry but I just..." she says, trailing off with a deep sigh. "I feel like, you know, I'm a total failure, in a way, 'cause I can't really do anything. It's hard for me to even get groceries up to my apartment."
Under Washington's new right to counsel, she was assigned attorney Chris Brunetti, who has worked on her case and is the assistant managing attorney of Northwest Justice Project's unit working these cases. Although Brunetti filed a motion for reconsideration in the case, the court approved sending the sheriff's office to boot Mariam from her unit earlier this month while the motion was still pending. She was evicted, and the landlord is required to store her belongings.
One of the difficult realities that remains in eviction cases is that while landlords may build up their case and collect evidence over weeks or months, tenants and now their lawyers often only have a short time to get their facts together.
"You typically only have a week, maybe two weeks at most from the time you get the case to meet your client and to prepare for a hearing where the court can terminate your client's tenancy," Brunetti says. "Tenants like [Mariam] still face quite an uphill battle in court."
While Washington has some of the most liberal tenant protections in the country, landlords will always have the upper hand because of the stakes, says Kingston, an attorney in the Spokane Eviction Prevention Unit. One is fighting for their property back, while the other could lose the place they live.
"Our clients are facing losing their homes and their security," Kingston says. "And the decision that they have to make, and the mental state that they're in, and the trauma that they're going through and that they're experiencing is going to always put them in a disadvantaged position."
Kingston has worked on these cases alongside attorneys Macy Disney and Andrew Newman in the Spokane Northwest Justice Project office since last fall. They, of course, work to prevent evictions, as does Martinez. But much of their work is also ensuring that landlords follow the processes spelled out in law, including providing the proper amount of notice and evidence where that's necessary.
New and old attorneys alike are still learning the new laws and figuring out how they will be tested in court. Attorneys may need to ask clients whether they want to pitch the landlord a settlement and plan to move out within a month or so — if they can even find a place in the current competitive rental market — or if they want to risk going to a hearing where their attorney can try a legal argument that could end in them being allowed to stay or result in their imminent eviction, Newman says.
"You're talking to the clients about this very real decision," Newman says. "Do you want to risk potentially being evicted in a week-and-a-half, or is a month-and-a-half enough time to be able to find a place?"
The attorneys have also started working more closely with community resources in an attempt to help their tenants land in a stable situation, whether they have a month to plan or not.
While settlements may be a more helpful choice for some tenants, some others want their voice heard in court, even if the decision won't go their way, the attorneys say. Disney says she represented a three-generation family that had a settlement ready to be signed, but at the last moment, the three women decided to go forward with the court process.
"They understood that they were going to be evicted; they understood it wasn't going to go in their favor," Disney says. "They'd had so much trauma happen to their family in the past year, they just wanted a voice."
So they got to spend an entire day in court talking about their situation and being heard.
Kingston says some good outcomes may be about giving clients what they need in that moment, even if it's just feeling empowered to share their side of things.
The state plans to examine just how the right to counsel impacts tenants, landlords, the court system and communities in a quantitative way.
Knab, who is helping oversee the assignment of more than 70 attorneys statewide for these cases through the Office of Civil Legal Aid, says he and UW researchers will be analyzing the data submitted on a quarterly basis by each jurisdiction. Ideally, the right to counsel will not only prove helpful for tenants, but it may also help communities remain whole and save money by preventing people from entering homelessness, he says.
"We're hoping to use the data we're getting in real time to try to make sure that we're looking at trends," and adjusting the program as needed, Knab says. "Our hope is people are going to see that this has made a positive effect and a positive change for people, and for communities." ♦