Seattle won't fund eviction lawyers just yet, as Council delays vote
When someone is charged with a crime, they have a right to a free attorney. Some members of the Seattle City Council want to extend that right to all tenants facing eviction.
But on Monday, a majority of Council members voted to delay a bill to extend such legal access, due to unanswered legal questions.
In principle, the right to an attorney already exists for Seattle renters. But in practice, the service is hard to access. It relies on volunteer lawyers, and doesn't have the staff to respond to the "tsunami of evictions" many housing advocates fear could come at the end of the eviction moratorium.
The bill being considered by the City Council would increase the funding enough to meet that expected demand.
On Monday afternoon, the City Council voted 6 to 3 to delay the bill though, citing legal questions. Councilmember Debora Juarez voted to delay over concerns about unintended consequences.
“Does this mean that if I make a hundred thousand dollars a year, and I decide to quit paying my rent in August, I just don’t want to pay it anymore, I get a free lawyer and the city picks up the tab?" she asked. "I don’t think that’s right.”
Many council members expressed support for the idea behind the bill, but asked for caution and time to read through legal concerns — some said they had not even had a chance to review it before the vote.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant said any delay would put renters at risk.
Some have proposed there should be a test to ensure only those who truly need it get the expensive legal help. But Sawant argued people facing eviction generally need free legal help, period.
"I don't care how reasonable a tone a politician uses, the substance of what they're saying is [that] if they insert that language into the law ... it would prevent many households from accessing that service," she said.
In some ways, the argument here is similar to that of voter ID laws playing out in other states. The question comes down to whether the greater risk is of abuse or of creating barriers to service.
Sawant's critique of other council members turned personal when she told them "My suspicion is that you’re delaying it because you want to make it weaker."
Councilmember Dan Strauss, who supported the delay, said "I don't think anyone here is afraid of assisting corporate landlords. I think what we're afraid of is creating a bill that is not legally sound," he said. "This is such important work that we have to do it right the first time."
In the end, Sawant promised to assume the tough love from fellow council members was sincere — at least for now.