Jesse Jones: Washington spends millions to give taxpayer funded lawyers to tenants facing eviction

SEATTLE — Geneva Holmes James’ Seattle apartment has no hot water in the kitchen.

“I warm it up on the stove,” she said.

The stove luckily works, but the oven door is busted.

She’s also facing an eviction for non-payment and for not responding to the landlord’s lawyers. But she says the landlord won’t accept her payment.

The landlord’s attorney says it’s not true and they’re negotiating with Geneva’s lawyers. They say they weren’t informed about the problems with the apartment and are working to make repairs.

In our state, Geneva’s lawyer is free because Washington offers the right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction -- paid for by Washington state tax dollars.

In our state, Geneva’s lawyer is free because Washington is the only state in the country that offers the right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. Paid for, by Washington state tax dollars.

Edmund Witter is the Managing Attorney for King County’s Housing Justice Project. He says most landlords by far - almost nine out of ten times had an attorney - while tenants did not. The King County Housing Justice Project gets $4.6 million a year from the state and another $500,000 more from King County to pay its 32 lawyers and support staff.

“When we’re doing our best work, I think we keep a lot of households housed that shouldn’t be evicted, that shouldn’t go through that process, that helps those families,” says Edmund Witter.

According to King County Superior Court, there were 4,500 unlawful detainers, better known as evictions, filed in 2023. This year 595 were filed in January alone. As of this past week, the court says a few dates were available in April and May but most cases would be set to June. A continuance in a case could result in a several-month delay. In many cases, it means the landlord is out thousands of dollars each month.

Sean Flynn, Director of the Washington Rental Association blames these free lawyers for the delays.

“The more funding we give the lawyers, the longer the process takes,” he said.

Sean says it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

“And then Housing Justice goes back to the legislatures and says, ‘Hey, we need more money because this is taking longer,’” Sean said.

Witter, however, says the process works. Over the past three years statewide, the HJP attorneys have completed 5,046 cases. In more than 1,300 of those the tenancy was completely saved.

“And frankly, we’ve had enough of our former clients who have been found on the homelessness death list that’s provided by the medical examiner. Every year we see that happen when they are evicted – so, there’s a huge cost to life. There’s a huge cost to public health,” says Witter of the HJP.

Landlord groups say they have issues with unnecessary delays, tactics, and the HJP’s use of a document called ‘The Order for Limited Dissemination,’ in the eviction process. Once signed, the document prevents screening companies from reporting the tenant’s eviction. Even if the eviction is for non-payment.

Andrew Tetnowski is a small landlord who rents just one property. His tenant hasn’t paid rent in his Seattle condo in nine months. Andrew says he was asked by HJP attorneys to sign the Order for Limited Dissemination in his settlement negotiations.

While I want this to be over as quick as possible, I morally can’t do that,” said Andrew. “Like, it feels like I’m lying and passing the buck on to someone else. And I can’t do that in good conscience.”

Mark Morzol, the Managing Attorney for Pierce County’s HJP says the document is used to bring fairness to the process.

“You could have somebody who had a tenancy for five to six years in a row that was going just fine,” he said. “It ends in eviction and suddenly they are a bad tenant. Like to me, that was actually probably a pretty good tenant until something happened.”

Jim Henderson, a lobbyist for the Rental Housing Association of Washington says taxpayer dollars would be better spent on funds for tenants not lawyers.

“Why are you not able to pay rent? Let’s connect them to resources that can help the,” he said. “That’s what people need. They don’t need more time.”

Sean Flynn, Executive Director of the RHAWA says he thinks the more people understand how broken this system is and how their tax dollars are going to defend someone from not paying a rightfully owed debt – the better.

“It doesn’t seem like housing justice,” he said. “It feels like housing injustice to me.”

But the lawyers at the Housing Justice Project disagree.

“If every tenant, just every time they look at somebody wrong or just do one thing wrong, we just throw them out every time, that’s how you get a homelessness crisis. That’s how you get people dying on the street,” they said.

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