The U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington on Tuesday ruled in favor of Governor Jay Inslee’s 2020 eviction moratorium, rejecting the variety of arguments put forward by the plaintiffs that the moratorium violated both the state and U.S. constitutions.
Specifically, the lawsuit filed last November argued that the moratorium violated the Takings Clause in the state constitution and the 5th and 14th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. The Takings Clause in Article I Section 16 along with the 5th Amendment require compensation whenever private land is taken for public use, while the 14th Amendment prohibits states from taking property from private citizens “without due process.”
However, Chief Judge Stanley A. Bastian stated at the end of the Aug. 24 oral hearing that the moratorium violated none of these state or federal provisions and was within Inslee’s authority.
“Our government can, should, and must protect the public’s health and safety during a global pandemic,” Bastian said. “People collectively can, should, and must protect themselves but also each other.”
He added that the moratorium was “neither vague nor oppressive,” describing it as an “appropriate and reasonable” response to COVID-19.
Bastian also took the plaintiffs to task for suing Inslee, who unlike State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is subject to the 11th Amendment’s prohibition against federal courts hearing certain lawsuits.
Under Inslee’s original moratorium, housing providers were barred from evicting tenants due to nonpayment of rent, regardless of their employment status. Housing providers were also prohibited from making inquiries into a tenant’s ability to pay. Before the moratorium expired on June 30 per a new state law, Inslee issued a “bridge” extension that continued it, albeit with new stipulations.
However, some said the extension merely “kicks the can down the road.” Since then, numerous housing providers have sold rental homes to people looking to occupy them, effectively shrinking the rental housing supply.
Although Bastian claimed that there are consequences when tenants fail to pay rent once the moratorium is lifted, plaintiff attorney Richard Stevens noted that this merely allows housing providers to evict but offers little to no way for them to recover unpaid rent. SB 5160 allows them to apply for some reimbursement from a state program, under limited circumstances.
“My clients are required to keep people in their property even though they don’t pay rent,” Stevens said. “Under the proclamation you cannot ever enforce that debt. My clients have gone months with unpaid rent and no possible way of ever recovering it. The state has not disputed that. We’re not going to get paid. We haven’t been able to evict. We haven’t been able to enforce our rights there.”
Stevens added that the moratorium “puts the entire burden of a public problem on a select group of people. Lots of businesses have been hurt during the pandemic, but only landlords are required to continue to provide their service…without being paid. This is unduly oppressive.”
Meanwhile, the Washington State Supreme Court last month ruled that housing providers could evict tenants under the Center for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium. The CDC guidelines state that the moratorium only applies to jurisdictions that lack a moratorium or one that provides the “same or greater level of public-health protections.”