Why is city government fighting against renters’ access to justice?
Seattle City Council meet Michelle Kinnucan.
Kinnucan, a veteran who is also low-income and disabled, is leading a court fight for a fundamental right for Seattle’s poor tenants: a hearing when your landlord tries to evict you illegally. She lost the first round, but she is appealing to the Washington State Court of Appeals and expects her next court date in November.
The law that Kinnucan is fighting, ironically, is one that is designed to help renters like her: the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance (TRAO). While most of the TRAO’s provisions are genuinely helpful to low-income tenants, the law also contains a serious flaw, namely denying hearings to renters when their landlords have obtained a Tenant Relocation License from the city.
But let’s move from the abstract to the very real.
“I was looking at being homeless,” says Kinnucan. “My landlord was trying to force me out illegally.”
Illegal eviction and huge rent hikes
Back in 2013, Ballard’s Lockhaven Apartments were sold to a group of investors, who eventually called themselves GRE Lockhaven. For the previous 50 years, the Lockhaven had been that rare wonderful thing: cheap, decent, privately owned apartments. Ballard News Tribune’s Peggy Sturdivant wrote about the vibrant community of the 180-unit, three-story, courtyard buildings: “There’s a communal garden, clotheslines, picnic tables and benches. One renter has lived there since 1968.” One-bedroom units rented for $850.
The new owners eventually settled on the name GRE Lockhaven. They said the buildings needed major renovations—inside and out. After renovation, rents for a one-bedroom would increase to as much as $1350. In September 2013, GRE Lockhaven illegally sent out 20-day eviction notices. The tenants fought back, citing the TRAO, and the Tenants Union of Washington State joined the battle.
The TRAO has many good provisions. Among them, landlords must do three things before they can even start the eviction process for tenants. First, the landlord must give tenants 90-days’ notice of any renovations that may affect their tenancy. Second, property owners must deposit into City Hall’s treasury their half of the $3000 in tenant relocation money that is paid to poor, single tenants who have incomes less than $32,000 AKA 50 percent of median income (more for larger households). The city of Seattle pays the other $1500. Three, the landlord is required to provide all tenants with an informational packet about the TRAO.
In September 2013, responding to the illegal eviction attempt, the city of Seattle stepped in and issued GRE Lockhaven a notice of violation. GRE Lockhaven withdrew its 20-day eviction notices and set about complying with the TRAO.
Then, GRE Lockhaven informed Kinnucan and other tenants that they could provisionally stay in their apartments until October 2014—subject to changes with the landlord’s renovation schedule. Kinnucan, like many other Lockhaven tenants, didn’t focus on the possibility of an eviction before October. Instead, she celebrated. This was a lifesaver, she thought. Now, she believed she had nearly a year to find a new apartment that she could afford.
Seattle law’s terrible flaw
In the meantime, Kinnucan took a leadership role in the resistance to GRE Lockhaven. In February 2014, when GRE Lockhaven started renovations in the apartments of her building, she became concerned about the lead levels from the dust that drifted into common areas. “There was a toddler living down the hall,” she recalls. An inspector from Public Health — Seattle & King County came out, measured the lead levels in the building and found they were too high.
By April 3, 2014, since GRE Lockhaven had complied with the TRAO, city government issued the company a Tenant Relocation License—which meant the property owner could start serving tenants with 20-day eviction notices. Kinnucan got her 20-day eviction notice on the next day. Overnight, the date to vacate her home was moved from October to April 24. She was truly in crisis.
She was the only person in her building to receive such notice. She believes GRE Lockhaven was retaliating against her for activism. Eventually she asked the city of Seattle for a hearing.
The city hearing that she requested would have been before a Hearing Examiner, a much less complex and less expensive proceeding than suing her landlord in King County Superior Court. If the Hearing Examiner found Kinnucan’s rights had been violated, the city could withdraw GRE Lockhaven’s Tenant Relocation License, and thus their right to evict her, until the matter was resolved.
To Kinnucan’s horror, the city of Seattle denied her right to a hearing.
This is the TRAO’s terrible flaw. Once the city of Seattle has issued a property owner a Tenant Relocation License, tenants can no longer appeal to the city’s Hearing Examiner.
Instead, tenants’ only recourse is to sue their landlords in King County Superior Court.
“We all know how easy it is for low-income tenants to sue their landlords,” says Kinnucan sarcastically.
Out of desperation, Kinnucan did sue GRE Lockhaven in King County Superior Court. She could not afford a lawyer. Instead, she spent hours in the King County Law Library. Before her case went to trial, GRE Lockhaven settled the case out-of-court. “I had two glasses of champagne that night,” recalls Kinnucan. She got to stay in her Lockhaven apartment until October.
Fighting for other tenants
Kinnucan, however, remained outraged by the TRAO’s section that denies tenants access to the city’s Hearing Examiner. “A lot of people don’t have the wherewithal to fight back” in Superior Court, says Kinnucan. She believes other tenants face illegal actions by landlords across the city and need hearings, even if the property owner has obtained a Tenant Relocation License.
So, Kinnucan sued Seattle government, claiming that the TRAO’s denial of the right to a hearing conflicts with Washington State’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act. Since state law trumps city law, if she can prove her argument, tenants will win the right to a hearing. “This [case] is about making sure that this doesn’t happen to other people,” she says.
While Kinnucan, at first, was representing herself, she knew she couldn’t take on the city’s attorneys in Superior Court. She contacted the pro-bono coordinators at several law firms. Stoel Rives was the first, though not the only, to offer to take on her case. Their assistance buoyed Kinnucan’s confidence.
On October 23, 2015, King County Superior Court Judge Mariane Spearman ruled against Kinnucan’s right to an appearance before the city’s Hearing Examiners. Kinnucan and Stoel Rives decided to appeal to the Washington State Court of Appeals. They were joined by the Northwest Justice Project, Washington state’s largest provider of free civil services for poor and working-class people.
Two key things emerged at the first trial. First, the city’s attorneys did not argue that there is an important public policy reason to deny poor tenants the right to a hearing. The city simply declares that it is legal to do so and therefor the government has chosen to do it. Second, it turns out that the city of Bellevue grants poor tenants such hearings. And Seattle could easily do the same.
For shame, Seattle! Mayor Murray and city councilmembers call off your lawyers!
And fix this law, instead.
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Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by the Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land-use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy.