Seattle Landlords Sue Mayor, Governor to End Eviction Moratorium

September 16, 2020 Updated: September 16, 2020

Small landlords in Seattle are suing the city and Washington state over eviction moratoriums that prevent them from displacing residential tenants during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit, known as El Papel LLC v. Inslee, was filed in federal court in Seattle. It names Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, both Democrats, as defendants in their respective official capacities.

The legal action comes after a second federal eviction moratorium took effect Sept. 4. The previous federal moratorium on evictions covered only tenants living in properties with rent subsidies or federally backed mortgages, but the new order by the Trump administration covers most renters across the United States, according to a Bloomberg summary. The new moratorium runs through year’s end.

Inslee issued an executive order, Proclamation 20-19, to implement a statewide eviction ban on March 18. The moratorium was intended to last a few months, but Inslee had repeatedly extended it. Its current iteration runs through Oct. 15.

On March 14, Durkan issued a civil emergency order preventing all landlords from initiating eviction proceedings, known in that jurisdiction as unlawful detainer actions, during the life of the order. It has been extended through Dec. 31. Seattle’s City Council supplemented Durkan’s eviction ban with its own, amending the city’s just-cause-eviction ordinance.

Ethan Blevins is an attorney with the Sacramento, California-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm representing landlords in this case whose properties are occupied by tenants who stopped paying rent when the eviction bans were enacted.

“The landlords have operating expenses, mortgages, insurance, property taxes, and all that, but they can’t collect revenue to pay those costs, so we are asking the federal court to place an injunction that stops those bans so that our clients can get some relief by seeking to evict the tenants who aren’t paying the rent,” Blevins said in an interview with The Epoch Times.

The landlords represented by Blevins are currently owed a total of about $60,000 in rent collectively, he said.

Tenants aren’t the only people experiencing economic hardships because of the pandemic, according to the legal complaint. The plaintiffs “have in the past and continue to work effectively with tenants who fall behind on their rent, whether due to the pandemic or for other reasons.”

The problem is “the blanket eviction ban puts landlords at the mercy of tenants who do not pay rent or violate other lease terms, whether they face financial hardship or not, and deprives them not only of their income, but the ability to recover and re-let their property to tenants in need of new homes.”

The bans “have upended lease obligations and stripped landlords of one of their most basic of property rights—the right of possession—leaving them with no bargaining power and no remedy against nonpaying tenants or tenants in breach of other material lease obligations.” At the same time, tenants are still able to enforce all the landlords’ lease obligations.

The bans run afoul of federal constitutional protections against the impairment of contracts by state and municipal governments, and evade the government’s constitutional duties to pay just compensation when private property is taken for public use, the plaintiffs argue in the document.

By forcing private landlords to give up their right to possession without compensation, “the eviction bans lay the burden of emergency housing costs at the feet of private landlords to avoid imposing the true cost on the public,” thus violating the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“These mom-and-pop landlords are just like any other small business,” Blevins said.

“We don’t expect the small grocer down the street to give us free food, and we can’t expect landlords … to provide an essential service for free and be able to survive that during a pandemic that everyone is suffering from.”

Many landlords aren’t keen on evicting their tenants, he said.

“The fear of an eviction tsunami may actually be overblown. Landlords, for the most part, aren’t going to be able to find somebody to replace the tenants they’re evicting in these circumstances. I think a lot of them just feel like it is better to stick with a partial paying tenant and hold out through the pandemic,” he said.

A spokesperson for Durkan defended the eviction ban issued by the mayor.

“The moratorium on evictions is one critical tool we have at the City to keep people in their homes and keep businesses afloat,” she said in an emailed statement.

“This Emergency Order was one of the first measures Mayor Durkan took to bring relief to our City and … it is critical to maintain [it] during this unprecedented time. Seattle and our local partners have taken extraordinary measures in this unprecedented emergency and crisis—leading the nation in implementation of protections for residents and providing financial relief to renters, landlords, and small businesses.”

Inslee’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment on the lawsuit.