How to Avoid Losing Your Home in the Time of COVID-19

Washington state rushes to protect renters from eviction

Washington state experienced the nation’s first reported case of COVID-19 and the first death, and the effort to slow the spread of the virus has meant shutdowns at many workplaces. State and local governments moved quickly to protect the newly unemployed residents from eviction or foreclosure, with Gov. Jay Inslee issuing a proclamation that prohibits evictions, except to protect the health and safety of other tenants, until April 17. It also forbids law-enforcement officers to enforce evictions for nonpayment of rent.

“The moratorium was necessary for a number of reasons,” says Andrew N. Ackley, a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney with Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore in Seattle. “First, I don’t believe we’ve ever seen such a sudden and widespread work reduction. Obtaining unemployment insurance benefits takes time, particularly with a massive spike in unemployment filings, even though Governor Inslee has also suspended the one-week waiting period. 

“Second, our court systems are operating at a very limited capacity right now. Rent-related evictions are not the type of emergency relief courts are focused on. Third, a pandemic is the worst possible time to force people out of their homes. Evictees have a stain on their rental record, and a difficult enough time finding a new place to live. We cannot force thousands of people into long-term homelessness and/or more crowded living situations at a time when social distancing is vital.”

In addition to the state proclamation, the city of Seattle issued a 60-day moratorium on residential evictions, and also halted evictions for small businesses and nonprofits affected by COVID-19. 

“This is a time of crisis and uncertainty for Washingtonians, Americans, and people across the globe,” says Max Goins, who practices class action/mass tort law at Keller Rohrback in Seattle. “When we are being asked—and potentially required—to stay home and not go to work for the sake of the public good, we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that people still have homes to stay in. Stopping evictions for rent-paying residents is a start. But more is likely needed, particularly from the federal government.”

Ackley advises, “If a landlord is ignoring the moratorium, tenants should notify law enforcement. Governor Inslee’s order calls for criminal penalties for violation. Tenants may also notify the Washington state attorney general’s office.”

Gretchen Freeman Cappio, a plaintiff’s civil litigator at Keller Rohrback in Seattle, agrees. “If a landlord persists in ignoring the Governor’s anti-eviction order, there are local resources that can help renters assert their rights,” she says. “In King County, for example, we have the Housing Justice Project [253-234-4204]. While they are not currently able to provide in-person assistance, they are still offering telephonic consultation to help people facing evictions.”

The Northwest Consumer Law Center (206-805-0989), which serves families with a household income up to 500% of the federal poverty guidelines, is also providing assistance to those threatened with losing their housing.

“The moratoriums on evictions are critical at this time,” says consumer law attorney Sam Leonard, with Leonard Law in Seattle, who serves on the board of Northwest Consumer Law Center. “Around half of all Seattle residents rent. Among the 50 largest cities in the nation, Seattle has the third highest median rent. … Many Washington renters work in the service industry, which has been particularly hard hit, given the ban on sit-down dining and the closing of bars.”

Leonard notes that the moratorium on evictions in Seattle also prohibits late fees or other charges due to late payments.

Help is also available for many home-mortgage holders: a 60-day moratorium on foreclosures for homes with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or FHA-insured mortgages. That includes foreclosures already in process. In addition, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac are offering payment forgiveness for up to a year for those who can’t pay due to the coronavirus. Other mortgage lenders are starting to offer assistance as well.

“This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we anticipate more changes will be announced,” says Beth Terrell, who practice class action/mass torts law at Terrell Marshall Law Group in Seattle. She is also on the board at Northwest Consumer Law Center. “Homeowners should check with their mortgage-loan servicer for updates, as well as seek advice from an attorney or housing counselor on how the moratoriums apply to their situation, as well as which assistance options are available to them.”

If a lender is attempting to foreclose on your property, Terrell advises taking immediate action. “Homeowners with a scheduled foreclosure date should not assume that the foreclosure has been postponed, as not all mortgages qualify under these moratoriums,” she warns. “We highly recommend that homeowners with a scheduled foreclosure date reach out to an attorney or housing counselor to confirm that their mortgage qualifies under the moratoriums and will be postponed.”

Cappio says it’s important, at such a worrisome time, that people at least not face the worry of possibly losing their homes.

 “Securing housing for millions of Washingtonians, many of whom are facing unprecedented financial circumstances and extreme health stresses, is a crucial part of addressing this emergency,” she says. “Let’s face it, there will hopefully be more time to collect rent, but science tells us that the time to act to preserve public health, and to ensure people can socially distance in a safe way at home, is now.”

For information on more legal questions regarding COVID-19, visit FindLaw’s legal center, or find more articles on superlawyers.com/articles (search for COVID-19). 

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