In rare partnership, landlord and tenant groups demand King County speed up rent assistance

In a rare alliance, advocates for tenants and landlords delivered a joint letter to King County Executive Dow Constantine on Thursday urging immediate changes to the county’s beleaguered pandemic rent assistance program and threatening to sue if the county does not act. 

King County’s program to distribute emergency rental assistance has lagged, with payments starting later than expected and still rolling out at a slow pace. 

The county cites burdensome federal rules, a slower-than-expected process of building a new database to manage thousands of applications for help and the sheer scale of money to be doled out. New changes will speed up payments soon, county officials say.

But landlords have seethed over the rollout, especially as other neighboring counties have distributed funds more quickly. Tenants worry about whether they’ll get help before state and local protections against eviction expire.

King County says since late July it has paid property owners $10.7 million, or about 7.4% of $145 million available in the latest round of funding. (That’s in addition to $38 million the county paid out last year and $12 million earlier this year.) County documents initially said payments would start in May. The county later estimated mid-July, then said it started making payments in late July.

“The Program is overburdened by extensive and unnecessary requirements that slows distribution of rental assistance to families in need,” reads the letter from Brett Waller, director of government affairs at the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association (which represents landlords) and Edmund Witter, managing attorney at the Housing Justice Project (which provides legal aid to tenants facing eviction).

Excessive rules “create barriers, delays, and decrease participation in the Program,” reads the letter, also signed by representatives from nine community organizations.

Waller and Witter write that if the county does not immediately streamline the program, “the undersigned organizations will jointly proceed with efforts to judicially require the County to reduce barriers.” 

In a statement, Constantine spokesperson Chase Gallagher said some changes requested in the letter are already underway but others are not under consideration.

“We have already incorporated changes to streamline our application and approval process to get money out the door,” he said.

King County isn’t alone in struggling to distribute rent assistance, with programs across the country lagging.

With millions of renters nationwide behind on rent, state and local governments have distributed just 11% of the latest federal funding for rent assistance.

But in the Seattle area, other counties have outpaced King County. Snohomish County has spent about 78% of its $57.8 million and Pierce County has spent roughly 69% of its original $53.4 million, according to county spokespeople. Pierce County also recently started spending $20 million in additional funds from the federal and state government.

Witter argues King County has been unnecessarily cautious, even when federal guidance allows them to streamline the process. “It just seems like everyone twists themselves in a pretzel about what they’re allowed to do and not allowed to do and the result is nothing happens,” he said in an interview.

King County officials say several key changes are already in the works to speed up funding.

The U.S. Department of Treasury clarified last week that when tenants don’t have available documents such as tax forms to prove their financial need, they can self-attest about their income and financial harm from the pandemic. That could speed up processing for tenants.

The Treasury department will also allow local governments to pay landlords based on their estimated rent owed before landlords have completed the full documentation required, potentially getting them payments sooner. In King County, those advance payments would be for about half of what a landlord is due, with the rest coming later once the full application process is done.

King County’s Department of Community and Human Services said in a blog post those changes “will help to smooth out some of the biggest snags to getting funding out the door.”

The county also promises the delayed database is nearly ready. County staff have begun using the system and expect it will be fully operational by “mid-late September,” department officials said. The county predicts it will process about $6 million in payments to landlords each week.

Starting Sept. 30, the federal government has the ability to start clawing back certain unspent rent assistance dollars and reallocating them to governments that have spent more of their funds, but it’s not yet clear whether the Biden administration will do that and to what extent. A Treasury spokesperson said the federal government was monitoring local government programs.

About 17,500 renter households and 1,500 landlords have applied for King County help.

To qualify, tenants must make no more than 50% of area median income, or about $40,500 for an individual. Waller and Witter asked the county to expand income eligibility to help tenants who may have started to rebound financially but still face a mountain of rental debt.

The letter also urges the county to cover up to 12 months of back rent owed, rather than the nine months currently covered. (The county also covers three months of future rent.)

Landlords who receive aid must agree to forgive additional back rent beyond what the county covers.

The county is not currently considering those changes because “we are very concerned that the funding available, even when fully expended, will fall short of the need in our community” just for those who currently qualify, Gallagher said.

If projections change, “we can certainly look at possible expansion of the income eligibility or coverage period,” he said.

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