POLITICS

Seattle Council Just Passed America’s First Ban on Winter Evictions

The West Coast city is getting more active about preventing homelessness.

Seattle may become the first U.S. city to ban wintertime evictions, protecting residents from being thrown out of their homes into potentially deadly climates. Under legislation that passed the City Council this week, landlords will not be allowed to evict poor tenants from the beginning of December until the end of February, when Seattle temperatures can fall below freezing and the rain is relentless.

Though other U.S. cities restrict evictions based on weather patterns (Washington halts evictions if there’s more than a 50% chance of rain; Chicago bans them when temperatures fall below 15 degrees), only Paris bans landlords from ejecting tenants for a months-long period each year.  

“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,” Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who proposed the legislation, said just before it passed with seven votes in favor and none against. “This is huge.” 

The measure was proposed as a means to address Seattle’s unprecedented housing crisis. According to a 2017 study commissioned by the city, the majority of evicted Seattleites ended up homeless, with more than one-third sleeping outside following their ejection from housing. Evicted renters were also disproportionately female and non-white. Most of those evicted for falling behind on rent had missed a single month.

“People were having one life hiccup — getting their hours cut, a medical emergency, a death in the family — and ended up getting evicted,” said Xochitl Maykovich, political director of the Washington Community Action Network, a tenants’ rights advocacy group, and the co-author of the study. “The data demonstrated how brutal the housing market was and that without regulations landlords were taking any excuse to throw people out on the street.”

Winter evictions can be deadly. According to a 2010 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, 700 people at risk of or experiencing homelessness die of hypothermia each year. In Seattle, 194 people died sleeping outside last year, almost seven times the city’s homicide rate. Though weather is not the direct cause of all those deaths, experts say nearly every condition associated with living on the streets, from mental illness to chronic disease to drug abuse, is exacerbated by the cold and moist conditions associated with Seattle winters.

Kevin Shepherd walks back to the tent where he lives as snow falls in Seattle on Feb. 11, 2019. Shepherd, who works as a musi
Kevin Shepherd walks back to the tent where he lives as snow falls in Seattle on Feb. 11, 2019. Shepherd, who works as a musician and pedi-cab driver when the weather is better, said keeping warm is the hardest part of being unsheltered during the winter

“A lot of people say that Seattle has pretty mild weather, but if you’re outside in these elements all the time and you don’t have the luxury of going into your car or a building, it can be punishing,” said Devin Silvernail, a legislative aide to Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales. 

The bill is one of the first progressive measures by Seattle’s newly emboldened City Council. Amazon invested unprecedented amounts of money in last year’s local election, an act of retaliation against the City Council for passing the infamous “Amazon tax” in 2018. Nearly all of the candidates supported by the online giant lost to progressive candidates backed by unions, tenants’ rights groups and other progressive organizations. 

Real estate and business groups opposed the bill, saying the ban would affect mom-and-pop property owners. Instead of burdening landlords by preventing them from evicting delinquent tenants, they argued, the city should instead expand its existing rental-assistance programs.

“Sure we need to expand rental assistance, but that doesn’t negate the need for tenant protections,“ Maykovich said. “The landlord lobby likes to think of themselves as middle class or working class, but if you own multiple properties, you’re not middle class. You’re rich. I don’t see why legislation should protect landlords from maybe losing small amounts of money at the expense of a poor renter losing their home.”  

Landlords have been the primary beneficiaries of Seattle’s ongoing housing crisis. Over the last five years, as Seattle’s Amazon-led business sector has gone on a hiring frenzy, the city’s housing stock has not kept up. The mismatch has allowed landlords to increase rents for existing properties without providing any new services or amenities. 

The eviction ban includes a number of important caveats. The bill is limited to low- and moderate-income renters. Landlords who live on the same property as their tenants (like those renting out their basement or a backyard cottage) would still be able to evict tenants, as would landlords who own fewer than five units in Seattle. The ban doesn’t apply to renters who engage in criminal behavior or threaten the safety of others.   

“A lot of people say that Seattle has pretty mild weather, but if you’re outside in these elements all the time and you don’t have the luxury of going into your car or a building, it can be punishing,” said Devin Silvernail, a legislative aide to Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales. 

The bill is one of the first progressive measures by Seattle’s newly emboldened City Council. Amazon invested unprecedented amounts of money in last year’s local election, an act of retaliation against the City Council for passing the infamous “Amazon tax” in 2018. Nearly all of the candidates supported by the online giant lost to progressive candidates backed by unions, tenants’ rights groups and other progressive organizations. 

Real estate and business groups opposed the bill, saying the ban would affect mom-and-pop property owners. Instead of burdening landlords by preventing them from evicting delinquent tenants, they argued, the city should instead expand its existing rental-assistance programs.

“Sure we need to expand rental assistance, but that doesn’t negate the need for tenant protections,“ Maykovich said. “The landlord lobby likes to think of themselves as middle class or working class, but if you own multiple properties, you’re not middle class. You’re rich. I don’t see why legislation should protect landlords from maybe losing small amounts of money at the expense of a poor renter losing their home.” 

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who proposed the winter eviction ban, recently reintroduced the idea of a tax on la
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who proposed the winter eviction ban, recently reintroduced the idea of a tax on large corporations to fund homeless services. A similar proposal was passed by the council in 2018 and later repealed.

Landlords have been the primary beneficiaries of Seattle’s ongoing housing crisis. Over the last five years, as Seattle’s Amazon-led business sector has gone on a hiring frenzy, the city’s housing stock has not kept up. The mismatch has allowed landlords to increase rents for existing properties without providing any new services or amenities. 

The eviction ban includes a number of important caveats. The bill is limited to low- and moderate-income renters. Landlords who live on the same property as their tenants (like those renting out their basement or a backyard cottage) would still be able to evict tenants, as would landlords who own fewer than five units in Seattle. The ban doesn’t apply to renters who engage in criminal behavior or threaten the safety of others.  

The future of the bill remains uncertain. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who warned the council not to pass the eviction ban, may veto it. The council, in turn, could override her veto. If it is enacted, the ban will likely face legal challenges from landlord advocacy groups. 

If it does go into force, the winter eviction ban is unlikely to singlehandedly alter the dynamics of Seattle’s ongoing housing crisis. The ban only comes into effect if tenants challenge their eviction in court, a process many low-income renters don’t have the time or resources to initiate. And tenants will still accrue back rent and fines during the three months when the ban applies.  

“We should also be sober about the limitations of the legislation,” Sawant said in the council session just before passing the bill. “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.”

Regardless of its imperfections, Maykovich said the bill will give tenants more leverage when negotiating with landlords if they fall behind on rent. Though Seattle has a relatively small number of official evictions — police enforced just 551 in the city last year — that is likely only a fraction of the number of people ejected from their homes each year.

Once you get evicted it’s a scarlet letter on your record.

“Once you get evicted it’s a scarlet letter on your record,” Maykovich said. “A lot of people agree to leave their apartments so their landlords won’t file the paperwork. This law gives them more power when that conversation takes place.”

As for whether the proposed ban offers a model to other cities, Maykovich stressed that it is part of a much larger package of tenants’ rights protections achieved through years of local advocacy. This year, Washington state passed a comprehensive eviction-prevention law that prohibited landlords from evicting tenants over non-rent-related fees and extending the legal notice period from 3 to 14 days. Seattle has banned exorbitant move-in fees, required landlords to pass housing inspections before initiating evictions and recognized the “right to a roommate.” 

“We’ve already significantly chipped away at the numbers of people vulnerable to evictions,” Maykovich said. “The moratorium is getting a lot of attention nationally because it’s something that hasn’t been tried before. But other cities should learn from the full package of laws we’ve enacted. What Seattle demonstrates is that tenants are a real movement and landlords aren’t.” 

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