Yakima County nonprofit helps tenants facing illegal ‘lockouts’

Legal help, rental assistance available for tenants and landlords

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — An increasing number of tenants have been calling a Yakima County nonprofit for legal help after being illegally locked out of their homes by their landlords.

“Sometimes they do it without warning,” said Jessica Martinez, Bilingual Housing Justice Project Outreach Coordinator at Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services. “Sometimes they go while the tenant is there and just tell them, ‘You have five minutes to get everything out’ and they need to leave — which, again, is completely illegal.”

Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services provides referrals to volunteer attorneys for low-income clients needing representation in civil cases. During the pandemic, the nonprofit has invested more of its resources into helping with eviction defense.

RELATED: Yakima County offers rental assistance for tenants, landlords

Martinez said the tenants calling her about lockouts are already struggling financially and with a shortage of affordable housing in the county, there are few options available to them.

“Some become homeless; I’ve helped people that live in their storage unit, which is really unfortunate,” Martinez said. “Some do couch-hopping, go with their friends or family until they can kind of get some stability.”

Landlord ‘lockouts’ illegal in Washington state

Martinez said while she has received calls about lockouts throughout the pandemic, she’s seen a noticeable increase in the past three months; now she’s getting at least one, if not three of those calls every day.

“We always tell clients: document everything, take pictures and then call us whenever you can,” Martinez said.

State law prohibits landlords from changing the locks on a rental property to stop a tenant from getting back in — unless they have a court order obtained through the legal eviction process.  Specifically, the law states:

It is unlawful for the landlord to remove or exclude from the premises the tenant thereof except under a court order so authorizing. Any tenant so removed or excluded in violation of this section may recover possession of the property or terminate the rental agreement and, in either case, may recover the actual damages sustained. The prevailing party may recover the costs of suit or arbitration and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

Since disputes between landlords and tenants are considered civil matters, police officers can do little about lockouts. According to the Yakima Police Department, the most likely response from officers would be to advise both parties of their legal rights and responsibilities.

Without a court order, law enforcement officers cannot compel a tenant who has a legal right to be on the property to leave, nor can they compel a landlord to open up a house to allow a tenant to reclaim their property.

However, police can take action if the dispute between landlord and tenant escalates to include threats, harassment or another criminal issue.

Martinez said anyone facing an illegal lockout should call Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services at 509-426-3168 as soon as possible for assistance. While attorneys are unlikely to be able to stop the lockout from happening, they can help tenants take the landlords to court.

“If someone does get locked out and we take on their case, then our right to counsel attorney would advocate for three months of rental assistance for them to have it in a new place,” Martinez said.

Tenants concerned they may have been illegally evicted can also file a complaint with the Washington State Office of the Attorney General here.

New law set to protect tenants as ‘bridge proclamation’ banning evictions for unpaid rent ends

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5160 into law, adding new protections for tenants facing eviction and making sweeping changes to unlawful detainer procedure.

Previously, low-income tenants facing eviction would need to come up with the money to hire their own lawyer to represent them in court or go without legal representation. Under the new law, they have the right to counsel — making Washington the first state in the nation to guarantee legal representation for indigent tenants in eviction cases.

Martinez said that change should help protect tenants when Gov. Inslee’s  “bridge proclamation” prohibiting evictions based on unpaid rent expires Sept. 30.

Senate Bill 5160 also established the Eviction Resolution Program, which provides tenants and landlords with a professionally trained impartial mediator to help them resolve disputes over unpaid rent before the case ends up in court. The program is free to both parties and can help resolve disputes without formal legal action.

Under the new law, landlords must offer tenants the option to participate in the mediation program prior to filing an eviction action in court. If a tenant chooses to participate, the landlord must participate as well — they have 30 days from the date of acceptance to come to an agreement.

According to the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas Counties (DRC), which manages the local Eviction Resolution Program, “this may include cooperating in the rent assistance eligibility process and participating in conciliation or mediation.”

As part of the process, the landlord must provide the tenant — and the DRC—with information about rental assistance, legal aid contacts and a reasonable repayment plan in addition to the standard 14-day pay or vacate notice.

Tenants do not have to accept the payment plan offered by the landlord and may negotiate repayment during mediation. According to the DRC:

‘Reasonable repayment’ according to SB5160 is considered to be no more than 1/3 of the monthly rent, plus current rent. This means if the tenant owes 3 months of rent, it could be paid back in 9 months by this definition.

The DRC will try to get ahold of the tenant three times during a two-week period to offer participation in the program. If they can’t contact the person or if they decline to participate, the DRC will give the landlord a certificate allowing them to file for eviction.

Rental assistance available for low-income tenants, landlords in Yakima County

Yakima County has received $28 million from the state Department of Commerce to provide rental assistance for low-income families. The program is geared toward helping tenants struggling financially during the pandemic to maintain stable housing and provide restitution to landlords who have not been receiving rental payments.

To qualify for the county’s rental assistance program, tenants must have an annual household income under 80% of the area median income, be experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19 and be at risk for housing instability. Martinez said immigration status is not taken into consideration.

Tenants can receive 12 months or more of back-owed rent, which will be paid directly to the landlord. The county is selecting 115 households per week through a lottery system; tenants who aren’t chosen for that week will remain in the system for future drawings.

Tenants can apply by calling one of the five agencies in charge of distributing funds:

Landlords can apply to the county’s rental assistance program on behalf of uncooperative tenants. Further information about how to apply for the rental assistance can be found here.

The county distributed $2.5 million during the first round of rental assistance from September 2020 to January 2021.  The second round of rental assistance will run through December 2021, or until funds are fully spent, whichever comes first.

Landlords may also qualify for up to $15,000 to cover tenants’ unpaid rent during the pandemic through the state Department of Commerce’s Landlord Covid Relief program.

Tenants worried about eviction due to unpaid rent can get more information and get connected to resources through Northwest Justice Project’s Eviction Defense Helper app here.