Washington State ramps up legal aid for tenants who face eviction

Lawmakers approve $3M to fund 10 more attorneys for a total of 80

Washington State Boosts Legal Aid on Evictions

Washington State may soon pay for more attorneys to help a growing number of tenants at risk of eviction.

State lawmakers have approved another $3 million in funding for the Office of Civil Legal Aid, whose right-to-counsel program guarantees low-income tenants the right to an attorney as they fight displacement in court, the Seattle Times reported.

The funding will allow the office to hire 10 more attorneys, for a total of 80 lawyers, to handle cases across Washington.

The state’s highest eviction rates occur in greater Seattle, Clark County and Spokane County, according to Philippe Knab, who manages the program at the Office of Civil Legal Aid.

“The Legislature did affirm its commitment to low-income Washington residents at imminent risk of evictions,” Knab told the Times.

He said the right-to-counsel program “promotes fairness.” 

Landlords, meanwhile, have questioned spending state funds on tenant attorneys. 

Sean Flynn, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, said the state should instead pay for financial assistance for tenants behind on their rent. 

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“Resolving an issue earlier with [rent assistance] would end up with less people in the system and thus less need for the lawyers,” Flynn told the newspaper.

In 2021, Washington became the first state to guarantee legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction — with other states following suit.

Supporters say the change is about balancing the scales in a complex and confusing legal process where landlords typically show up in court with a lawyer but tenants rarely do without legal aid programs. 

The Office of Civil Legal Aid asked for additional funding last year after a sharp spike in eviction cases that followed the end of the last temporary pandemic-era tenant protections.

Other protections remain in place, such as state limits on no-cause evictions and Seattle’s limits on evictions during the winter months and school year. But in many corners of the state, the eviction process is largely back to norms before the pandemic.

Statewide filings remain higher than before the pandemic. In January, Washington landlords filed around 2,000 eviction cases, more than twice as many as last January and 55 percent higher than in January 2020, just before the pandemic.

— Dana Bartholomew

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