Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduces legislation to end evictions in winter months
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduces legislation to end evictions in winter months

Folks may not be evicted during winter months starting in December

Seattle City Council passed legislation that will create a moratorium on winter evictions during the months of December, January and February.

This legislation is targeted for winter months because in December, January and February temperatures regularly fall into the 30s overnight.

Just before the ordinance passed 7-0, with councilmembers Lorena González and Debora Juarez excused from the meeting, councilmember and ordinance sponsor Kshama Sawant congratulated her colleagues on a job well done.

“At the end of the the day, what we will have achieved if this legislation is voted through is landmark legislation that has no precedent in the country and in fact very little precedence in the world, because as far as we know, only the country of France has something similar,” she said. “This is huge, and I think we should be proud of our movement for this.”

While introducing the legislation, Sawant detailed a study jointly issued by the the Seattle Women’s Commission and King County Bar Association about evictions in Seattle.

“This study found that nearly 90 percent of people evicted become homeless and that people of color were disproportionately, in fact, overwhelmingly were the ones who were evicted,” Sawant said. “More specifically, black tenants experienced eviction at a rate 4.5 times what would be expected based on their demographics in Seattle.

She said that most Seattle tenants are evicted for not paying their rent, or for being short on rent.

“In most cases the study found that evicted tenants owed one month or less in rent,” Sawant said. “In one case, the tenant was evicted for owning $10.”

Sawant went on to say that an eviction can be a death sentence, with the study finding that out of 2017 evictions, six Seattle tenants died during or right after evictions.

Four of these individuals committed suicide, she said, one died of an accidental overdose the day after being evicted, and one tenant died during the eviction process while receiving hospice care.

According to Sawant, the study also found that at least nine people who died homeless on the street in 2017 had an eviction filed against them in the three years preceding their deaths.

“The data are a brutal inditement of a private housing market that is dominated by corporate landlords who care more about profit than housing people,” Sawant said.

Several amendments to the ordinance passed prior to the vote.

One amendment, put forth by councilmember Andrew Lewis, was to create a framework for a mitigation fund that people facing an eviction could have access to in order to pay unpaid rent.

“Under this amendment, we would establish a mitigation fund,“ Lewis said. “It would only be accessible to folks who establish this defense. And I think it is important that when we talk about this moratorium, when are really talking about a defense in an eviction proceeding as where it’s applied.

“In a case where a tenant facing an eviction is able to establish this defense, this would then exist as a fund that could be accessed by the tenant in order to pay rent or access additional rental assistance.

Lewis said that up to half a million dollars would have to be put aside in the fall budget to make this mitigation fund fully effective.

This amendment passed 7-0.

Councilmember Alex Petersen put forth an amendment to the ordinance that would exempt small landlords — those who own four or fewer units — from the legislation.

“The amendment I think is important to exempt them because they do face economic hardships as well, in terms of being able to provide those units to the housing market. They do have a mortgage. They do have utility bills, property taxes…”

Sawant disagreed, saying that it would be an unfair burden to put on the detrimentally affected party to figure out whether they are eligible to take advantage of the legislation.

“This is unfortunately an example of a politician proposing a policy to benefit those who already have more than most at the expense of poor and working class people with really no data or evidence to support it,” Sawant said. “The point remains that the small landlord that this amendment is intended to help is entirely hypothetical.

“But the tenants whose lives are being destroyed and whom this amendment would not help — that’s very real,” she said.

The amendment passed with a 4-3 vote. Councilmembers Tammy Morales, Lisa Herbold and Sawant opposed.

Herbold then put forth an amendment that expanded language already in the bill.

“Currently a reason for termination that is exempt from the bill includes unlawful behavior, and this amendment would expand unlawful behavior to a particular type of lease violation and specifically impacts the health or safety of other tenants or the owner.”

Sawant and Morales opposed the amendment, but the rest of the council voted it in. Sawant said that the language could give landlords the grounds to evict someone by saying that they attracted unsafe vermin to the building, or hung out with dangerous people.

Originally, the period of time for the moratorium was slated for five months of the year, but it was reduced to three months of the year after an amendment put forth by councilmember Dan Strauss passed 4-3, with Morales, Sawant and Herbold opposed.

Another amendment that passed, also put forth by Strauss, restricted the use of the legislation to only moderate income households, as defined by 100 percent of the area median income or less. This means an income of $76,000 for an individual, or $108,600 for a family of four.

Sawant classified this amendment as a way of means testing a vulnerable people group.

“What means testing really does is it forces poor and working class people to jump through additional hoops to access a protection that was meant for them,” she said.

Sawant and Morales were the only two against this amendment.

After all these amendments and more were passed, Sawant said she was disappointed in the creation of loopholes, but that the legislation was historic.

She said that even more powerful movements were called for to continue the work that this legislation has started.

“We should also be sober about the limitations of the legislation,” Sawant said. “It will not end evictions. It will delay them, and we know that delaying will provide a real lifeline and could potentially completely prevent evictions, but on the whole, this won’t be enough. We also do need rent control, and we need major expansion of social housing. So we can’t stop fighting.”