American News Mar 5, 2021 8:42 AM EST

Seattle City Council proposal would pay legal bills for tenants facing eviction regardless of income status

If approved, the city would be required to cover the costs for legal representation as the legislation would add a section to the Seattle housing code that would allow for the city to provide a lawyer for any renter facing a court eviction hearing.

Seattle City Council proposal would pay legal bills for tenants facing eviction regardless of income status
Ari Hoffman Seattle, WA
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The Seattle City Council is considering a proposal to pay the legal bills for residents, regardless of income level, who are being evicted from their home and sued for back rent, could choose to contract with a lawyer that would be provided by the city free of charge.

According to KOMO News, the council’s Sustainability and Renter’s Rights Committee on Thursday voted 3-1 to advance the proposal to the full council and the proposal could be considered as early as Monday.

If approved, the city would be required to cover the costs for legal representation as the legislation would add a section to the Seattle housing code that would allow for the city to provide a lawyer for any renter facing a court eviction hearing.

According to the proposal, as soon as the tenant receives a summons for the eviction proceeding, the resident could ask for an attorney free of charge no matter what the tenant's annual income is. The defendant would not be obligated to accept the city’s free legal representation, but if they opt to hire their own, Seattle would not be obligated to cover those costs.

Marxist City Council member Kshama Sawant sponsored the measure, which is modeled after similar legislation in San Francisco and New York, however, both of those cities require income limits for the person asking for the service. She is attempting to fast track the legislation because the city's eviction moratorium is scheduled to end March 31.

Socialist City Council Member Tammy Morales said during the committe hearing that, "The whole point here is that people (can) get access to representation."

Edmund Witter, managing attorney of the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, who was part of the group that worked to enact the policy in New York told Markovitch that the effort to calculate a tenant’s financial income as they awaited their court hearing was cumbersome and time consuming.

Roger Valdez, director of Seattle for Growth, a representative of commercial landlords in the city told Markovitch, "It’s smash-and-grab politics on the part of the City Council. What we need is eviction prevention. It’s incoherent once again by the City Council, and again shows a complete lack of regard and interest of how things work in the real world."

Meanwhile landlord’s especially small "mom and pop" owners continue to struggle under the mandated rent and eviction moratoriums. Roger Telsey, a retiree told Q13 Fox that all of his frustration stems from a property he owns in Seattle. "If we didn’t get anything for 3 months that was ok we could deal with it. Now ... I am taking money out of our living expenses every month,"

Telsey told Q13 that a couple who moved into his Seattle home in March of 2020 stopped paying rent in April and it has cost him nearly $30,000 as a result of the eviction moratoriums put in place by both the state and the city at the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Telsey added that he may also be left holding the bag for $1,300 in utility bills which has gone unpaid by the tenants.

Attorney Ethan Blevins told Q13, "The city and state rest on this assumption that landlords are good to go, are flush with cash. That is simply not true." He also pointed out that the current rules also do not require tenants to provide any evidence they are facing financial hardships.

According to the city, over 20,000 of the city’s 32,000 registered rental properties are single-unit properties, many of which are owned by a small landlord. Many property owners count on rental income to pay mortgages, utilities, education and other bills and they were concerned that the onus of the legislation would fall on them. It was predicted that the effects of the measure would hit smaller property owners harder than it will larger property ownership companies that can spread out the loss over more units. Many retirees have spent a lifetime investing in every dime into a few properties and count on the revenue for their day to day expenses.

In February of 2020, when the council unanimously passed the "Winter Evictions Ban," the measure was only preventing evictions for three months. Landlords were concerned because they would now have to assume that a tenant will not pay rent for three months. In many cases it has now been at least a year.

In February 2020, Seattle officials including the Mayor called the legislation an "…unworkable starting point."  Morales and Sawant along with the rest of the council pushed it through, knowing the negative effects it would have on property owners.

Now all of the dire predictions regarding the initial legislation have come to fruition.

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