Like most tenants, Amy March has her complaints about the place she's renting.
There's the bathroom sink, broken for over a year, that's forced her family to wash their hands in the bathtub instead. There was a busted pipe that flooded their basement for three days. There are the "complete addicts" living nearby.
Yet, for all this, what really scares her is that she and her family might be forced to leave. She knows what the alternative is. The 40-year-old has lived it.
She spent a year and a half homeless — March, her girlfriend, March's autistic son and her high-school-aged daughter — spread across three tents set up in a friend's backyard. They survived, despite her son's seizures and her fibromyalgia neuropathy and the windstorms and blizzards. They adapted, piled on blankets and ran an extension cord from her friend's house to a $5 Walmart space heater so they didn't "freeze too much."
But then her daughter became pregnant, and camping wasn't acceptable anymore. March's mother chipped in part of her Social Security check every month, and everyone — 10 people, four generations, from infants to grandmothers — packed into this little century-old house.
It's here, near the Mega Wash Express car wash in the low-income West Central neighborhood, that they weathered the pandemic and all the other crises of the past year. But as one misfortune built on top of the other — her mother died in her sleep on the Fourth of July; her daughter's boyfriend was murdered in December — she says that paying the $1,195 in rent a month became impossible.
March doesn't exactly know how far she's behind on rent. Some months she only gave the landlord $300; other months they were able to scrape together $600 or $850.
She believes that, for now, one thing and only one thing is keeping her family sheltered: On March 18, 2020, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made it temporarily illegal for landlords to evict anyone for not paying rent. As the pandemic raged, Inslee extended the moratorium again and again.
"Literally, it has been a blessing," March says. "If it wasn't for it, we would have, guaranteed, been evicted awhile ago."
March's family aren't the only ones hanging on by their fingernails: In the final week of January, according to a Census Bureau survey, more than 190,000 Washington state tenants were behind on their rent. Despite boosted unemployment checks, two rounds of federal stimulus and an infusion of rental assistance funds, the numbers have only worsened as the pandemic has dragged on.
And Amy March also knows that, by the end of next month, the state's eviction moratorium is scheduled to end.
"That's what we're worried about — is all of us being out in the streets again," March says.
Almost half of the Washingtonians behind on rent told Census Bureau pollsters that they think they are very or somewhat likely to be evicted in the next two months. This month, the Spokane County Bar Association predicted that Spokane County would have as many as 2,500 eviction filings every month in the period after the moratorium was lifted.
It's why landlords and tenants, legislators and activists are all fighting — sometimes with each other, sometimes side by side — to avert a possible disaster.
They see a potential wave of evictions dumping vulnerable people into a collapsing low-income rental market at a moment when a deadly virus still looms.
"If we get evicted, it's not only us getting displaced," March says. "We're looking at children, their elderly grandmother — we're looking at a long list of people who are literally going to be homeless."
Before a big storm hits, there's a moment when everything gets quiet.
In the weeks after the pandemic first hit last year, people seemed to think the problem was just a temporary blip, says Carol Weltz, director of community action for SNAP, the local nonprofit that doles out rental assistance. But denial soon evaporated into desperation.
"Probably three months out, we started getting more and more panicked people not being able to figure out how to pay their rent," Weltz says. "The weight gets heavier. One month behind, you're nervous. Three months behind — most households don't have enough savings to pay for three months back rent."
Things start to get real scary real quickly, she says. Entire sectors of the economy were frozen — waiters, symphony musicians, retail workers found themselves effectively unemployed. Weltz felt echoes of the 2008 economic crash, when the sorts of people who'd never known financial distress were suddenly facing ruin.
At SNAP, Weltz knows just how devastating an eviction can be, how it doesn't stop the debt collectors from calling, how it's a black mark that stains rental applications and credit scores, and how it can plunge a family into homelessness.
And that's during normal times. The pandemic had blown a gaping hole in both formal and informal safety nets. Normally, if a family loses its house, they phone a friend to find a spot to crash, Weltz says, but "who's going to want a family of five to come stay with them during a pandemic?"
Homeless shelters, despite all their precautions, are even riskier, with every night turning into a potential superspreader event. By the end of last year, three different homeless shelters in Spokane had suffered COVID-19 outbreaks. And by February, the Union Gospel Mission shelter had joined the list, with at least 70 guests and staff members having tested positive for the coronavirus.
In other words, Inslee's eviction moratorium didn't just keep people from losing their shelter — it may have kept them from losing their lives: A National Bureau of Economic research paper published last month assessed different counties across the nation and concluded that those that limited evictions cut COVID-19 deaths by 11 percent.
And yet the moratorium didn't solve the crisis — it merely delayed it. The threat of eviction has been taken off the table temporarily, but that didn't stop unpaid rent from piling up.
The damage isn't just financial — it's psychological.
"It makes me catch my breath," Weltz says. "Once you get so far underwater, you can't even breathe. You don't even want to open your door and your mail. ... There's nothing you can do."
In her second-floor apartment on the upper South Hill, a Bosnian refugee named Mirela Gujica knows the feeling. She took pride in her work ethic, in how working 66 hours a week at two jobs meant she never missed a rent payment. But then came COVID-19.
And as she listened to co-workers chatter about death tolls, the brutality of her Bosnian childhood came roaring back into her mind — hearing grenades boom and neighbors scream; seeing gunshots, fired through a window, pierce her sister's chest and hand; witnessing her mother, with no medical training, extract the bullets from her sister's body with tweezers.
Gujica's anxiety with watching the pandemic unfold was all-consuming. With her relatives missing or dead or still in Bosnia, she felt utterly alone.
"Just knowing that you don't have anyone to turn to," she says. "All I could think is, my daughter has underlying health problems."
She quit her credit union job to be with her two kids, while at the same time, she watched her restaurant job hours plunge. Sixty-six hours of work a week collapsed into 18. She watched her bills climb and her credit rating plummet. She had to make stark choices: Pay rent or buy food. She says she has a green card as a permanent resident, and yet she got a letter from the state unemployment office, accusing her of being illegal, telling her she'll have to repay the thousands of dollars in food stamp money she got over the past year.
Gujica says she owes more than $3,000 in rent today. The looming debt deepens her anxiety.
"It's constantly overplaying, and it just keeps replaying and replaying," she says. "It is a very dark spot, believe me when I tell you."
A few doors down, in the same apartment complex, Deseray Hendrickson, a 23-year-old mom, has been in her own dark spot. Her relationship with her partner had already been bad before the pandemic — she quit her job a year ago to make sure her kids were safe — but she says the stress of COVID just made it worse.
"He started getting really mad because he couldn't go out anymore," Hendrickson says.
She got a protection order against him, but that didn't solve her financial woes. She applied for unemployment, but it took five months for her application to chug its way through the state's bureaucracy.
"While waiting for unemployment, I had to scrape by," Hendrickson says. "Right now, I have $4,000 in debt."
And that's just in rent payments.
Both tenants say their property manager assured them they would be able to work out some sort of payment plan.
"She told me that, some way, we'll figure things out," Gujica says.
But it would be one thing if Spokane Housing Ventures, the nonprofit that manages their apartment and other low-income rentals across the state, just had to deal with two tenants in crisis. Instead, they've faced hundreds.
As each month has progressed since the pandemic hit, an additional 10 percent of Spokane Housing Ventures tenants started falling behind in rent, says Dianne Quast, the nonprofit's interim director. In Spokane County alone, they already have 177 renters behind on their rents.
"We've got some folks who are $6,000, $7,000 in debt now with us, because it's been going on for so long," says Quast.
From March to December, they went from having $127,000 in unpaid rents in their properties to having over $450,000, and it keeps getting worse. The renters are suffering most, but the landlords are struggling, too.
"All these bills still keep coming in, but we have less and less money to work with," Quast says. If nonprofits don't get help, "then we're gonna start losing housing, because people aren't gonna be able to afford to keep the doors open."
And it's the same story for other big nonprofits that provide affordable housing, such as SNAP and Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington.
A few weeks ago, Ben Stuckart, director of the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium, reached out to Spokane's 10 largest low-income housing nonprofits to assess the damage. Nearly a quarter of their units — 1,100 households in all — were at least a month behind on rent.
Total them up, and those 10 providers were owed more than $1.3 million in Spokane County alone.
"It's affecting their ability to pay their mortgage payments, any loans they took when they built their low-income housing," Stuckart says. "It puts them at risk as a nonprofit — if they go under, that puts all of their housing units at risk."
It's tempting to caricature the debate over the eviction moratorium as being between victims and villains on one side or the other. But it's often a lot more complicated: Sometimes, the tenant advocates and the landlords are the same people.
When Stuckart talks to nonprofit directors, he can hear the dilemma that's tearing them up: Their mission is to house people, not evict them. But what happens when it seems like finances make that mission impossible?
"The concern in their voices when we discuss this is real," Stuckart says. "It's a real financial concern; it's a real moral concern."
As landlords go, Keith Kelley was almost an idealist. He was proud of his record of never evicting anybody. He saw offering affordable housing to low-income tenants as part of making his neighborhood — his city — a better place. He won the Inlander's Peirone Prize in 2013 for his efforts to improve the low-income West Central neighborhood, including through housing.
And when 13 West Central rental homes were going to be torn down in 2016 to make way for the Mega Wash, Kelley fought to preserve some of them as low-income housing. But now, for financial reasons, he's in the process of selling at least one of his own West Central properties, taking it off the rental market entirely.
"I'm liquidating property," Kelley says. "I'm fighting tooth and nail to keep my business alive."
The idealism has been replaced by exasperation. Kelley argues that Inslee's broad eviction moratorium — and aggressive enforcement strategy — is pushing landlords to dump their low-income rental properties precisely when they're needed the most.
Yes, the strain is financial: He says his rents are down 25 percent from the prior year. But there's also another issue, the feeling of "not having any power or control in a situation and seeing that situation become progressively more lawless."
"Every day, I get calls from tenants, crying and asking for help," Kelley says. "And every day I hear of another 911 call in another one of my properties."
Low-income housing providers, like SNAP and Catholic Charities, have also lamented how destructive behaviors and conflicts between residents have increased, while the moratorium has handcuffed their ability to enforce even minor behavioral issues, like smoking or playing loud music.
For his part, Kelley rattles off an inventory of horrors visited upon some of his 75 rental properties in the past year: fights, theft, harassment, knives wielded, axes brandished, light fixtures ripped from ceilings, one furnace sabotaged and five chickens "murdered."
Last year, one of Kelley's tenants, Ginger Cox, essentially evicted herself, moving out to escape one of her housemates.
The offender, she says, was a misogynist who "treated women like shit," would pass out drunk in common areas and would scream at the other renters.
"To me, the breaking point is I came home from work one day, I walked into my house, he was naked and peeing in the sink," Cox says. "Nobody wants to walk in and see that. Nobody wants to walk in on a naked-ass 60-year-old man."
Kelley attempted to kick the man out, giving the tenant a list of social-service providers that could help him find a new place. But he says that just earned him a threatening phone call from the state attorney general's office.
"They basically said this: 'Keith Kelley, do you have an attorney?'" Kelley recounts. "You better get one, son, because you're in a world of hurt."
While the eviction moratorium specifically allowed evictions for immediate health and safety reasons, he says, "clearly the attorney general's office was operating under a different agenda."
In a statement, Brionna Aho, spokeswoman for the AG's office, said that their attorney's interactions with Kelley had been "congenial" and that Kelley hadn't provided the full context to them. She says evictions have occurred for safety reasons during the moratorium, and she encourages landlords to contact the AG if they have questions.
Indeed, this month, Kelley is in the process of his first-ever eviction — kicking out a different problematic West Central tenant for property damage — but he says if it weren't for the moratorium, it would have happened five or six months earlier. Worried about the AG's aggressive stance and the reaction of local courts, he says, he was "frozen."
Tenant advocates, however, can counter with their own parade of shady landlords. From her perch as a housing attorney at the Northwest Justice Project, Jessica Schultz describes landlords "stretching the facts" to try to justify evictions, or trying to force tenants out by "making things unpleasant enough."
After the Inlander reported last year that property managers at Whitewater Creek's low-income apartments were issuing eviction threats in violation of the moratorium, the AG's office fined them.
"It is unfortunate that landlords are suffering and losing money, but the tenants are the most vulnerable — our clients are the most vulnerable people," Schultz says. Losing a chunk of your investment stream, she argues, isn't as remotely significant as losing the roof over your head.
But Kelley argues the state's approach — in his view, "doing surgery with a chainsaw rather than a scalpel" — is actually "disintegrating inventory of affordable housing," ultimately harming vulnerable tenants.
After all, there's a relatively simple way for landlords to get around the eviction moratorium: Sell the property.
"We've had close to 100 homes that we've seen out of our portfolio sold in the last year," says Washington state Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, who runs a property management company on the west side. "They don't want to be housing providers anymore."
In Spokane, selling a home is becoming more lucrative right at the moment that renting out a property is becoming more difficult.
"We're seeing large double-digit price increases in price year to year. The demand for housing in Spokane is about to skyrocket," says Darin Watkins, government affairs director for the Spokane Association of Realtors. "I am telling you a tsunami is coming."
Spokane County's rental market was already suffering from a suffocatingly tight vacancy rate before the pandemic hit — and this would just make it worse.
It's not clear how many local landlords like Kelley are selling rentals or turning them into owner-occupied units. In some cases, Schultz points out, unscrupulous landlords have even pretended they're going to sell the property just long enough to evict a tenant.
But Schultz has seen a serious shift in the apparent availability of housing.
"My clients who need a place to go are having trouble relocating," Schultz says. "It seems like there are fewer vacancies."
In normal times, there's churn built into the low-income rental market — some tenants get kicked out, others leave for nicer apartments — giving nonprofits like SNAP openings to house clients who are homeless or who need to relocate.
"When the pandemic first came on, we were still housing people, it wasn't a problem, everything was still flowing," Weltz says. "About three months in, it just kind of stopped."
Everything is frozen. No evictions. No vacancies.
In a lot of their housing programs, Weltz says, landlords "who have been willing to take a chance on people who've had some problems" don't want to risk it now. Stuckart says he knows two people who bought rental properties during the last year as an investment, but are waiting until the moratorium is over before renting them out.
"My clients who need a place to go are having trouble relocating. It seems like there are fewer vacancies."
Will the frozen market thaw once the eviction moratorium is over?
"It's really hard to know what's going to happen because everything is so unprecedented," Schultz says. "I keep using that word."
But here's what she is certain about: Take a year of backlogged evictions, combine it with a year of pandemic-propelled unemployment, and when the moratorium lifts, the consequences are going to be "massive."
"Enormous," she says. "It's going to be catastrophic."
Kelley agrees. But he worries that the wave will not only throw thousands of renters overboard, but that the eviction moratorium has already sunk some of the lifeboats that could have rescued them.
ON FIREIf a wave of evictions does hit after the moratorium is lifted, local attorney Michael Cressey is already positioned at the beachhead. With a long record of representing tenants through the Voluntary Lawyers Program, the county brought him out of semi-retirement to help brace for a potential "onslaught" of eviction cases filed.
"You're dealing with people who are literally facing, perhaps for the first time in their life, being thrown out on the street," Cressey says.
When the moratorium ends, he's expecting the number of eviction cases packing the courts to be a double or triple the normal rate.
The state has launched a series of eviction resolution programs at "Dispute Resolution Centers," including in Spokane, as part of a strategy to negotiate between tenants and landlords and, ideally, avoid evictions. When the moratorium ends, Cressey says, landlords will need a certificate from one of these centers to prove that they made a good faith effort to work something out before evicting tenants.
And some are getting that part out of the way earlier. In January alone, Cressey says, just one attorney started the process to send 400 to 500 tenants through the Dispute Resolution Center.
That attorney, Nik Armitage, disputes the idea that his landlord clients are just going through the motions in preparation for evictions, and he doesn't expect a huge wave.
"A flood of evictions isn't good for landlords either," he says, citing the costs of eviction and vacancies.
He says they're legitimately trying to hammer out compromise repayment plans, and that they've been successful most of the time, but that about 70 tenants "have just not responded whatsoever."
As both parties in Olympia have rolled out bills to end the eviction moratorium, these Dispute Resolution Centers are key pieces of both proposals.
The Republicans' bill, from Barkis, the representative in Olympia, would end the Washington state eviction moratorium, but also would require that landlords provide a 45-day warning before a tenant must vacate and connect their tenants with resources to help them, including Dispute Resolution Centers.
The Democrats' proposal, from Washington state Sen. Patty Kuderer of Bellevue, would allow evictions, but only if landlords first jumped over a series of hurdles to ensure every other alternative had been exhausted. For tenants a half-year or less behind on rent, landlords would have to offer them a reasonable repayment plan. If that didn't work, the landlord and tenant would head to a local Dispute Resolution Center to hammer out a compromise. Fail there, and it's off to mediation.
"It's really about making sure that there is an exit ramp for people to climb out of this hole that they're in, through no fault of their own," Kuderer says.
But for all the efforts at negotiation and mediation, Cressey says it's not that easy.
"We have just not had a lot of success with coming to agreements with the landlords," Cressey says. "The government money keeps drying up."
Without more rental assistance money to sweeten the pot, he says, it's "more of a jump-through-the-hoop and get the certificate program."
And there's where you find landlords and tenant advocates, like mismatched buddy cops in an action movie, temporarily setting aside their differences to fight for the same goal: Bucketloads of cash to help struggling landlords and tenants.
Late last year, Weltz was in charge of distributing $5.9 million in rental assistance funds through SNAP, describing the scramble to get the money to those in need as "running really fast with your hair on fire."
At the same time, the city of Spokane handed out around $2.6 million in state and federal funds to local agencies to provide rental assistance. Both efforts ran into hurdles. City Council President Breean Beggs says they "underestimated the challenge of getting tenants to sign off." Some tenants, apparently overwhelmed by being so deep in debt, don't even want to open the door, he says.
Weltz says SNAP's experience was the opposite.
"There's been a few cases where the tenant will apply, but the landlord doesn't want to accept the money," Weltz says. Their rental assistance, from the state of the Department of Commerce, required the landlord to forgive 20 percent of the rent owed, and some weren't willing to take the deal.
But the biggest problem with the funding was that there wasn't nearly enough of it. Within 60 days, Weltz says, the coffers were bare.
A lot more help is on the way. The state recently passed a COVID relief bill distributing $365 million in federal funds to help tenants and landlords. Spokane County is getting $9 million from the feds for rental and utility assistance, while the city of Spokane is getting $6.7 million.
The fight isn't just over whether that amount is enough — a lot of observers say it isn't — but also over who gets help, and how.
Stuckart, for example, argues that a big chunk of the money should go directly to the large housing nonprofits disproportionately impacted by the crisis. Barkis' bill, meanwhile, establishes $600 million to fund the Emergency Rental Assistance Grant Program — both landlords and tenants could apply to the fund for help. But tenants would have to fill out an affidavit showing that they've been severely impacted by COVID-19 before receiving it.
While the Washington Department of Commerce plans to inject $43.5 million in additional rental assistance, Commerce Director Lisa Brown worries that there will continue to be aftershocks if the moratorium ends. If the rental market continues to shrink, she says, there might be "another wave of people that really don't know where they can go."
Brown lives in Kendall Yards, just south of the West Central neighborhood, where Keith Kelley is getting rid of one of his rental houses and where Amy March's family is struggling to hang on to theirs.
"I walk through the neighborhood all the time," Brown says of West Central. "I know that a lot of the neighborhood is rentals. I think that will be a place where a lot of this plays out, frankly."
It will play out in apartment complexes and low-income rentals in struggling neighborhoods throughout the city. Gujica, the Bosnian refugee, says she managed to get $1,700 from rental assistance, but that wasn't nearly enough to deal with her backlog in rent. Hendrickson, the mom who left her partner because of domestic violence, says she applied for rental assistance but the program "ran out of money" before she could get any.
March says she's been calling SNAP recently, asking them when rental assistance money will be available again, and if she'll receive any. She says she's tried to negotiate with her landlord, even offering to clean his other properties in exchange for a break on rent.
If she doesn't get help by the time the moratorium is lifted, she's left with one last recourse: "Pray to God that we can scrounge up the rent money." ♦
Tenants have to declare, under penalty of perjury, that they've taken advantage of all government assistance possible, that they're paying as much as they can, that they've experienced a massive financial hardship, and that they'd be effectively homeless if evicted.
"Landlords and judges are making subjective decisions about whether or not the declaration should be upheld," says Ali Rabe, director of Jesse Tree, a nonprofit fighting evictions in Idaho.
Evictions paused for five weeks last year while Idaho's courts were limited, but as soon as the courts reopened, evacuations spiked back up to almost identical levels as before the pandemic.
"Evictions are just proceeding as business as usual," Rabe laments.
In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee's moratorium, meanwhile, puts the burden more on the landlord, banning nearly all evictions — including for all but the most dangerous and destructive lease violations — and also banning late fees, rent increases, and threats of evictions or rent increases in the future.
CLARIFICATION: The article has been updated to clarify that Washington state launched new eviction resolution programs at "Dispute Resolution Centers" and that the centers themselves were not newly "launched."