"Right To Counsel" Law Advancing Through Legislature

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A "right to counsel" measure that is getting closer to approval by the Legislature would make Washington the first state to ensure that low-income tenants have legal representation when faced with an eviction.

The bill has passed both the Senate and the House, and has one final vote before the Senate before heading to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee. The Seattle Times reports the proposed law would provide attorneys to tenants who receive certain public assistance, have been involuntarily committed to a public mental health facility, can’t afford a lawyer or who have incomes at 125% or less of the federal poverty level.

The state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid would have 90 days to draft a plan to implement the law within a year.

An amendment accepted during Thursday's House vote would also lift the state’s moratorium on evictions less than three months from now. That amendment is raising alarm from advocates who say that’s not enough time to ready the state for a potential “eviction cliff.”

Inslee has extended the moratorium multiple times as the coronavirus pandemic has continued, with the most recent extension set to expire June 30, the same day the amendment sets it to end. Inslee could still create a new moratorium even if the amendment becomes law.

Jim Bamberger, director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid, said his office would need to hire 58 additional attorneys throughout the state to represent poor tenants, in addition to contract attorneys in order to handle the wave of cases expected to hit the courts when eviction moratoria are lifted. He said that it would be impossible to have all the lawyers needed for tenants by July 1.

More than 160,000 Washington households are estimated to be behind on rent as of late March, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, nearly 11% of households renting in the state.