By Cesar Canizales, Special To The Medium
Ayda owns a rental home in Lake City, which she said she leased at below-market rates to the current renter when she temporarily moved out of state for work before the pandemic.
“I was providing affordable housing,” Ayda said, who asked that her last name not be published to preserve her privacy. “I was not in it to make a profit. My tenant didn’t have a great credit score, and I was able to overlook that and say, ‘Hey, you seem like a good person; you seem like you need a chance and a place to live. Let me give you a rental.’”
When the City of Seattle instituted a series of eviction moratoriums from March 2020 until February of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ayda said her tenant stopped paying rent.
While the city and King County have rental assistance programs for people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, Ayda said her tenant did not apply for the program. Her efforts to communicate with the tenant about applying for assistance have failed.
She has tried to inspect her property, but the renter has refused to let her into the house and has displayed erratic behavior. She said the tenant owes nearly $50,000 in back rent, but she doesn’t expect to ever see that money.
Ayda is just one of the many small landlords who have fallen through the cracks of the rental assistance programs that were supposed to help landlords maintain their properties when local governments instituted blanket eviction bans.
The eviction moratoriums helped thousands
As thousands of jobs were eliminated at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington state and local governments enacted eviction moratoriums to help people – especially low-income and communities of color – remain housed when workers lost all or part of their incomes. But the eviction bans didn’t mean renters were not responsible for the rent, and they would eventually have to pay the accumulated rent to their landlords.
The rental assistance programs administered by King County and the City of Seattle, funded by the federal, state and local governments, were supposed to do just that—pay the tenants’ rent directly to landlords. The programs required the tenants’ and landlords’ cooperation.
Now, Seattle-area small landlords like Ayda said they have been swept into a system that has tied their hands and saddled them with a difficult-to-navigate process to receive rental assistance through King County or the City of Seattle. In her case, because her tenant has refused to communicate or cooperate with her, she is stuck.
The city’s moratorium also forbade landlords from shutting off utilities. Ayda said the utilities remained under her name, but the tenant has not paid them since 2020. She continues to pay them, so her credit won’t take a hit, she said.
“The eviction moratorium has essentially painted me as a corporate landlord or just someone who is able to absorb a loss of two-plus years for a tenant who is not paying,” Ayda said. “I’m just trapped in the eviction moratorium, and the city doesn’t want to listen to me.”
Now that the eviction moratorium is over, Ayda said she has started the judicial process so she can regain possession of her house, but it’s likely to take months because the courts are backed up. Meanwhile, she’s still paying property taxes.
“As a good landlord, I have to uphold my responsibilities for a contract, but the tenant doesn’t have to,” Ayda said. “So, I can’t go to court, but they want me to pay property taxes.”
It is a similar story for Deo and Maya Chand, a retired couple who have a rental home in south Seattle and who spoke about their predicament along with their daughter, Arthi Chand.
Their house was rented to a woman who died in September 2019. The woman’s daughter moved into the house, and the Chands allowed her to stay while she got her affairs in order in the aftermath of her mother’s death.
The Chands were lenient “out of the goodness of their hearts,” said Arthi, who is helping her parents with the issue with her husband, Scott Dunbar.
The woman stayed and told the Chands that she wanted to continue to live in the house, but she didn’t sign a lease or rental agreement. Arthi said she tried to get the woman to sign a lease, but the woman evaded her, ignoring phone calls and emails.
Then, the woman’s boyfriend moved in that December. Since then, the couple have been living in the house with two children but have not paid rent or utilities.
When the city enacted the eviction moratorium, the Chands’ hands were tied and had remained so until this year, when the moratorium was lifted.
Arthi said the couple remained in the house but refused to apply for rental assistance and have not paid any rent to the Chands, which totals about $50,000.
The utility bills have piled up as well. According to the Chands, the water bill alone is about $20,000 because one of the toilets was broken for a month, leading to a one-month bill of $5,000.
“We ask for anything—$200, $300—just to help my parents who are retired but are still paying mortgage and taxes on the house,” Arthi said.
Arthi said her family showed some goodwill toward the couple.
“We are not bad people. We did not want to kick them out on the street. We’re not saying, ‘Hey, pack up and take your kids and leave,’” Arthi said. “We wanted to work with them until they found a place. We told them, ‘You’re more than welcome to stay but give us something.’ They didn’t.”
Arthi said she sees a “light at the end of the tunnel” and is now working through the legal process to get her parents’ house back, but she has “little faith in the justice system.”
In the meantime, the City of Seattle has cited the Chands multiple times for having junk and trash in the backyard, which is strewn with abandoned cars and old appliances. Some of the windows are broken, and the siding is coming off in some places.
“We’re not expecting much from the city at this point. I just want them to understand the situation,” Arthi said. “They’re not going to forgive the utilities. We understand we have to pay something, but $20,000 is ridiculous. There’s nothing we can do.”
“The city won’t help us,” said Deo. “We’re on fixed incomes. We’re retired and supposed to enjoy it. It’s very hard.”