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Washington is first state to provide free legal help to tenants who can't pay rent

Court-provided attorneys will be assigned to low-income tenants in Washington state facing eviction.

SEATTLE — Tenants facing eviction due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic now have one more resource available to them. A new Washington state law provides legal services, free of cost, to low-income tenants facing eviction.

Many housing experts are predicting a wave of evictions in the coming weeks as moratoriums expire in cities and counties across the state.

“We anticipate being really busy," said Edmund Witter, a lawyer with King County’s Housing Justice Project. "Even the number of attorneys we have will probably not be enough to meet the need."

Witter and a team of lawyers will soon be appointed to low-income tenants facing eviction. The new program makes Washington the first state to provide counsel to tenants who haven’t paid rent.

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“It’s a very different type of right to counsel," explained Witter. "It’s something that no state has ever experimented with or tried before, and it’s ultimately something that is going to save a lot of houses."

In Pierce County, some 23,000 households are behind a combined $95 million in rent, according to data from the US Census Bureau released in mid-September.

Valeri Almony, a county employee who helps people navigate landlord-tenant disputes, said she has yet to see one eviction due to nonpayment – a sign for her that the system is working. Evictions have resumed in Pierce County for several weeks.

“A lot of the landlords we have dealt with, and we have over 6,000 in our portal, they don’t want to evict people," said Almony. "They want a resolution. They want support. They want funding, and they want communication."

The real test will come as Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium is set to expire on Oct. 31.

“Our goal is to not have any lull in services," said Almony. "We want to make sure that we are supporting as many tenants as possible and getting as many landlords as whole as we can."

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