Eviction mediation program sees “tsunami” of activities in November

Rick Bannan / [email protected]

An agency commissioned to mediate tenants with unpaid rents has seen an influx of new cases as the evacuation protection introduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has lapsed.

On November 1, Governor Jay Inslee’s order ended, preventing landlords from terminating tenants for overdue rents between March 2020 and July 2021. However, while that protection has expired, there is a new state law that gives tenants a number of options to stay in their homes.

Senate Act No. 5160, signed during the Washington State Legislative Session in 2021, instituted an Forced Evictions (ERP) resolution program. The program requires landlords and tenants with unpaid rent to go through a dispute settlement center (DRC) to find a solution to the debt.

That solution could be a rental support or a rent repayment plan, said Savenia Falquist, executive director of Community Mediation Services. The agency is the DRC for Clark County.

The county was one of six to pilot the ERP process under an order from the state Supreme Court in September 2020. Community Mediation Services began implementing the program at the beginning of December.

The program requires a request from the landlord to invite the tenant to voluntarily enter the ERP process in addition to the 14-day wage rent or to vacate one, according to a final report for SB 5160.

Rent assistance is one of the possible solutions. Falquist said her agency is working with SHARE of Vancouver to provide rental assistance to those who qualify. According to their latest report, approximately $ 900,000 in rental assistance was distributed through the Community Mediation Services program, with assistance from other agencies as well.

Those who are not eligible for direct rental allowance can take out a repayment plan under SB 5160. depending on which amount is higher, according to an invoice summary by the legislator, “an appropriate repayment plan” must be offered that does not exceed a third of the monthly fees owed.

During the “voluntary” period that tenants were still on eviction notice from Inslee’s order, Falquist said her agency had handled about 2,000 cases. She said during that time they tried to process as many cases as possible before November 1 in order to reduce the number of incoming cases after protection ended.

Prior to Nov. 1, Falquist said her agency had about 25% of contacts with those the agency had contacted regarding mediation. Since then, she has estimated that between 65 and 75% of the people reported are involved in the process.

“The reason, I suspect, is that there is a moratorium (so they don’t run the risk of losing their home,” said Falquist. “We have a very different landscape now that the moratorium has been lifted”).

Falquist said her agency had increased staff to deal with the “tsunami” of new cases. She estimated that around 100 to 200 new cases were being added every day by the end of the month.

Falquist said landlords had to participate in the ERP process in order to obtain certification from a DRC to initiate an eviction lawsuit if the tenant did not respond. She said that during the ERP phase, tenants didn’t have to worry about the 14-day notice period and the process could take weeks to find a solution.

“The way the law was written, if you join our program and try to find resources to stabilize your shelter, you won’t be out in 14 days,” Falquist said.

Outside of the ERP, Falquist noted that SB 5160 also contained requirements for legal representation of tenants in eviction court proceedings, a move they believed was “unprecedented”.

Falquist said the goal of DRCs and SB 5160 is to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome after nearly 20 months of rental protection.

“Our goal with our program is to stabilize housing for tenants and their families and to pay landlords,” said Falquist.