Eviction mediation program sees ‘tsunami’ of activity in November


An agency tasked with handling mediation for tenants with unpaid rents is seeing an influx of new cases as eviction protections put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic have gone away.

On Nov. 1, Gov. Jay Inslee’s order which prevented landlords from evicting tenants for past-due rent between March 2020 and July 2021 ended. While that protection has expired there is, however, recent state law providing a number of avenues for tenants to stay in their homes.

Signed during the 2021 Washington State Legislative Session, Senate Bill 5160 established an Eviction Resolution Program (ERP). The program requires landlords and tenants with unpaid rent to go through a Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) in order to come up with a solution on the debt.

That resolution could be rental assistance or a rent repayment plan, Savenia Falquist, executive director of Community Mediation Services said. The agency is the DRC for Clark County.

The county was one of six which piloted the ERP process following a state Supreme Court order in September of 2020. Beginning that December, Community Mediation Services started implementing the program.

The program requires notification by the landlord to invite the tenant to voluntarily engage in the ERP process alongside the 14-day pay rent or vacate one, according to a final bill report for SB 5160.

Rental assistance is one of the potential solutions. Falquist said her agency partners with SHARE of Vancouver to provide rental assistance for those who qualify. As of the latest report, she said about $900,000 in rental assistance has been distributed through Community Mediation Services’ program, with other agencies also distributing assistance.

Those who do not qualify for outright rental assistance are able to enter into a repayment plan under SB 5160. Tenants with unpaid rent from March 1, 2020 to six months after the expiration of the governor’s eviction moratorium or the end of the public health emergency, whichever is greater, must be offered “a reasonable schedule of repayment” not exceeding a third of monthly charges owed, according to a bill summary from the Legislature. 

During the “voluntary” period where tenants still had eviction protections from Inslee’s order, Falquist said her agency worked about 2,000 cases. She said during that period they attempted to handle as many cases as they could before Nov. 1 in order to cut down on incoming cases once the protections ended.

Before Nov. 1, Falquist said her agency had about 25% engagement with those the agency contacted regarding mediation. Since then she estimated between 65% to 75% of those notified are now engaging in the process.

“The reason for that, my suspicion would be, is that there’s a moratorium (so) they weren’t in threat of losing their home,” Falquist said. “We have a whole different landscape now that the moratorium has lifted.”

Falquist said her agency has increased staffing to handle the “tsunami” of new cases. She estimated that about 100 to 200 new cases came in daily as of the end of the month.

Falquist said landlords had to participate in the ERP process in order for them to receive a certificate from a DRC to proceed with court action on eviction should the tenant not respond. She said while undergoing the ERP, tenants didn’t have to worry about the 14-day notice to vacate, and the process could take weeks in order to identify a solution. 

“The way the law was written, if you’re engaging in our program and trying to find resources to stabilize your housing, you’re not out in 14 days,” Falquist said.

Outside of the ERP, Falquist noted SB 5160 also included requirements to provide legal representation to tenants in eviction court cases, a move she said was “unprecedented.”

Falquist said the goal of DRCs and SB 5160 was to come up with a mutually beneficial outcome following nearly 20 months of rental protections.

“Our goal with our program is to stabilize housing for tenants and their families, and to get landlords paid,” Falquist said.