AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Seattle City Council has passed a ban on evictions during winter months. If the mayor signs off, it will be one of the first bans of its kind in the nation. The new ordinance bars landlords from evicting low- and moderate-income tenants for things like unpaid rent during the coldest time of the year. Kate Walters is a reporter with member station KUOW in Seattle. Welcome to the program.
KATE WALTERS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: Who's behind this, and what's the reasoning?
WALTERS: Well, like many West Coast cities, Seattle is experiencing a housing and homelessness crisis. Rents have gone up due to the tech boom, and there are nearly 7,800 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Seattle alone. So this ordinance comes from Seattle's socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant, and her goal was to ensure people who fall behind on rent don't get evicted and possibly become homeless during the wettest, coldest months of the year. She also cited concerns about the increasing number of people dying on the streets in Seattle, which was roughly 100 in 2018.
So she proposed a pretty broad ban that was narrowed by her colleagues. The bill that was passed puts the ban in place for three months, and that's December through the end of February, instead of the five that she proposed. It was also narrowed to only apply to low- and moderate-income tenants. And the final bill exempts landlords who own four or fewer units in Seattle.
CORNISH: Can you talk about how this is enforced? I mean, does it mean that tenants can escape eviction altogether if they're having trouble in the winter months?
WALTERS: It applies to tenants who, let's say, fall behind on rent or commit some lease violations, but there are exemptions, including if there's criminal activity or if the person is making other tenants unsafe. The ordinance also doesn't prevent a landlord from moving forward with an eviction come March. It just sort of puts a pause in place during the winter. So if a landlord files an eviction against a tenant during those three months, the tenant can use this as a defense in court and stay in their home. But you have to keep in mind, tenants are still responsible for the rent during those months.
CORNISH: Help us understand just how big an issue evictions are in Seattle.
WALTERS: According to data from the King County sheriff's office, they received around 3,300 court-ordered evictions last year for the whole county. They had to go out and physically enforce about a third of those. And their data show roughly 550 of those evictions that they enforced were at Seattle addresses. So that's year-round data, which means the winter months will be a fraction of that.
But proponents of this bill also point to a 2018 study by the Seattle Women's Commission and the King County Bar Association that said, listen - evictions can contribute to homelessness; they're often over just a month or two of unpaid rent, and they disproportionately impact people of color.
CORNISH: What's the reaction to this ordinance?
WALTERS: Well, there have been concerns raised by landlords, as you can imagine, and also by the mayor of Seattle. They're arguing that the focus should be put on making rental assistance programs more robust and not on adding sort of onerous restrictions for landlords. I heard landlords expressing concerns about the economic impact of this and what that might mean for them, saying things like, you know, we've got bills to pay, too.
So on the other hand, supporters say, listen - this is an extra protection to make sure those people who are maybe on the margins, who fall behind, are not being put on the streets in cold and potentially dangerous weather.
CORNISH: Do you expect the mayor to sign this?
WALTERS: Yeah, that's a good question. The bill has gone to Mayor Jenny Durkan, and she's got the option of signing it, letting it become law without her signature or vetoing it. Her office says that she's evaluating that ordinance, and so we're just going to wait and see what happens there. If she does sign it, it will go into effect 30 days after that signature, and so we're really talking about something that would be in place next winter.
CORNISH: That's reporter Kate Walters of member station KUOW in Seattle. Thanks so much.
WALTERS: You're welcome.
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