Washington State is the only state that provides taxpayer-funded attorneys for tenants facing eviction
Geneva Holmes James’ Seattle apartment has no hot water in the kitchen.
“I heat it on the stove,” she said.
Fortunately the stove is working, but the oven door is broken.
She also faces eviction for failure to pay and failure to respond to the landlord’s attorney. But she says the landlord won’t accept her payment.
The owner’s lawyer says this is not true and they are negotiating with Geneva lawyers. They say they were not informed of the apartment’s problems and are working to make repairs.
In our state, a lawyer in Geneva is free because Washington is the only state in the country that provides the right to an attorney for low-income renters facing eviction. It was paid for with Washington state tax dollars.
Edmund Witter is the managing attorney for the King County Housing Justice Project. He says most landlords so far – nearly nine in ten – have had a lawyer – while tenants have not. The King County Housing Justice Project gets $4.6 million a year from the state and another $500,000 from King County to pay its 32 attorneys and support staff.
“When we do our best, I think we keep a lot of families in housing that shouldn’t be evicted, shouldn’t go through this process, and that helps those families,” Edmund Witter says.
According to King County Superior Court, 4,500 illegal detainers, known as evictions, were filed in 2023. This year 595 detainees were filed in January alone. As of last week, the court says some dates were available in April and May but most cases will be scheduled through June. Continuing the case could result in a delay of several months. In many cases, this means the owner is out thousands of dollars each month.
Sean Flynn, director of the Washington Rental Association, blames those freelance lawyers for the delay.
“The more funding we provide to lawyers, the longer the process will take,” he said.
Sean says it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
“Then housing justice goes back to legislatures and says, ‘Hey, we need more money because this is taking longer,’” Shawn said.
However, Witter says the procedure is a success. Over the past three years statewide, AKP attorneys have completed 5,046 cases. In more than 1,300 of them, the entire rent was saved.
“And frankly, we’re tired of our former clients being found on the list of homelessness deaths provided by the medical examiner. We see that happen every year when they’re evicted — so, there’s a huge cost to life. There’s a huge cost to life,” says AK’s Witter. Public Health”.
Landlord groups say they have issues with delays, unnecessary tactics and the AKP’s use of a document called a “limited publication order” 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 Titnowski is a small landlord who only rents one property. A tenant hasn’t paid rent for his Seattle apartment in nine months. Andrew says HJP’s lawyers asked him to sign a limited publication order in his settlement negotiations.
““While I want this to be over as quickly as possible, I morally cannot do so,” Andrew said. “It feels like I’m lying and giving the responsibility to someone else. And I can’t do that in good conscience.”
Mark Morzol, HJP’s managing attorney in Pierce County, says the document is used to bring fairness to the process.
“You could have someone who had a lease for five to six years in a row and it was going well,” he said. “They end up getting evicted and suddenly they’re a bad tenant. To me, this was probably actually a good tenant until something happened.”
Taxpayer money would be better spent on renters, not lawyers, says Jim Henderson, a lobbyist for the Washington Rental Housing Association.
“Why can’t you pay the rent? Let’s connect them to resources that can help,” he said. “This is what people need. They don’t need more time.”
Sean Flynn, executive director of RHAWA, says he believes the more people understand how broken this system is and how their tax money will defend someone from not paying an outstanding debt – the better.
“It doesn’t look like housing justice,” he said. “It seems like an injustice to me.”
But attorneys at the Housing Justice Project disagree.
“If every tenant, every time they look at someone wrong or do something wrong, we evict them every time, that’s how you get a homelessness crisis. That’s how you get people to die on the streets,” they said.