Seattle landlords sue governor, mayor over eviction moratoriums

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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, here in a June 2019 file image. Durkan has ordered the Seattle Police Department to cut back on overtime since the COVID-19 pandemic began. - Erika Schultz/Seattle Times/TNS

A small group of Seattle landlords is suing Mayor Jenny Durkan and Gov. Jay Inslee over the constitutionality of city and state eviction moratoriums, which in Seattle’s case has been extended to December to protect people who can’t pay rent amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Seattle, comes two days after the federal Centers for Disease Control initiated a nationwide eviction moratorium through the end of 2020.

The landlords are represented pro bono by Ethan Blevins, a lawyer for Pacific Law Group who has taken Seattle to court in the past over its “first-come, first-served” rental ordinance and the city’s attempt to levy an income tax.

“We’re all facing various fallout from (coronavirus), landlords and tenants alike, and I think that’s the problem taken by the approach now — it expects landlords shoulder the burden of the pandemic rather than putting the burden on the public as a whole,” Blevins said.

Tara Lee, a spokesperson for Inslee, said the governor welcomes the court’s review of the state’s eviction moratorium, which she called “a difficult but necessary measure to prevent widespread homelessness during this unprecedented pandemic.”

She noted that the moratorium does not erase the debt of past due rent.

“The moratorium on evictions is one critical tool we have at the City to keep people in their homes and keep businesses afloat,” Durkan’s office said in a statement. “This Emergency Order was one of the first measures Mayor Durkan took to bring relief to our City and why it is critical to maintain during this unprecedented time.”

Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project at the King County Bar Association, doesn’t expect the lawsuit to go very far. Similar challenges based on constitutionality have been struck down by federal courts such as the Southern District of New York in June.

Witter had not yet seen the actual text of the lawsuit, but pointed to reports that said in August, at least, more than 90% of people still paid rent around the country, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.

“I don’t think it’s a very promising lawsuit in my view. I think it’s more of a political threat,” Witter said. “Tenants have actually been pretty good on their rent so far … delinquency rates have not been horrible … the reality is I don’t think they have too much to complain about right now.”

Delinquency rates could get worse now that federal aid has largely ended, but in King County more than $40 million is on the way to help tenants pay their owed rent.

Osho Berman, whose LLC is one of the parties in the lawsuit, owns and operates low-income housing around Seattle and King County and says the eviction moratoriums have made it impossible to keep his more vulnerable tenants safe from others who struggle with mental health or drug use issues.

“There’s very few mechanisms that I as a landlord have to manage tenants, and they’re getting fewer and fewer,” Berman said. “As I understand it, having talked to my attorneys, if I can prove in court they are an immediate threat to themselves or others, there is sort of a road map, but to be able to prove that to a court in this era during coronavirus is far harder than it seems on paper.”

However, it’s not impossible for King County landlords to evict a tenant now based on the tenant’s behavior. Data from the King County Bar Association says 48 tenants have been evicted for a lease violation or behavior issue since April.

At least one other lawsuit over the state moratorium is in the works. Rob Trickler, president and executive director of the Washington Landlord Association, says the association and its allies have raised more than $100,000 for a lawsuit that has yet to be filed, Trickler said.

“I’ve had a number of emails asking, ‘Who’s suing when, how can I participate?’” Trickler said.

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