Residential Housing and Utilities Assistance

Besides providing adequate health care to those most affected by infection, the most important priority during the pandemic is that people have access to safe and adequate shelter so they can maintain social distancing and stay healthy at home.  

According to Crosscut, there are reasons for both hope and concern in the COVID economics of residential housing.  By the end of the summer, researchers have estimated as many as 40 million people could be at risk of eviction from rental debt.  However, some surveys showed that only 9% of renter households in Washington reported being behind on rent in August.  Other information showed that many only made partial payments. In any case, it isn’t normal times for housing and many are struggling to maintain payments.

Everyone has been affected negatively by COVID19, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Between eviction moratoriums and rent, utilities and other assistance programs, there are people available to talk with you about your housing needs.

Tip: Connect to help on housing, utilities, food and more,  Washington Connection and WA 211 are there to help you find things like rent assistance, food and services.

Eviction Moratoriums

One measure being used to help stem the tide of homelessness that could swell after COVID’s dramatic job losses is eviction moratoriums.  While they do not cover the missed rent directly, these temporary policies eliminate the right of landlords and mortgage holders to evict residents on the basis of non-payment.  

In many cases, the rent still accumulates during non-payment and becomes due.  Most moratoria offer a grace period during which the evictions continue to be banned for past nonpayment, offering time for the renter to catch up on the debt or negotiate with their landlord or bank.

Washington State

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee enacted a moratorium on residential evictions, which has been extended (so far) through December 31 of 2020, and will likely see additional extension into the following year.  

The statewide moratorium includes a ban on late fees or other chargers, and restricts retaliations against tenants for late payment of rent. 

Those who feel their landlords or others have violated the eviction moratorium may file a complaint through the State Attorney General’s office via this form.

US / National

While our own state’s moratorium is stronger and started earlier, there is a federal policy that has been implemented nationally as well.  The CDC-imposed order announced on September 1 is meant to avoid mass evictions and contain the spread of the virus.  

It requires a declaration by the tenant, which can be printed from the CDC website, to be handed over to the landlord.  The application of this program has varied considerably throughout the county and is basically inapplicable in Washington due to our own, more clear moratorium. 

More information on the national moratorium from the NYTimes here.

While these moratoria help to avoid eviction and possible homelessness, they still do not clear rental debts, which will mount considerably for those unable to pay their full amounts throughout the pandemic.  Which is why it is important to look at both rental assistance and possible renegotiation with your landlord.

Rental Assistance

Complementary to the eviction moratoriums is direct rental assistance, which offer cash assistance to residents to help cover their rent or mortgage payments in order to avoid eviction and/or homelessness.  Rental assistance is usually reserved for emergencies and for qualifying cases of income loss or poverty.  However, under COVID we are seeing many new or newly expanded programs offering support. 

In September, King County announced the creation of the King County Eviction Prevention and Rent Assistance Program, assigning $41 million to assist households economically impacted by the coronavirus.  The program works directly with tenants while also partnering with landlords large and small.  

Information for tenants interested in entering the lottery for assistance is available on the tenants page here, and includes steps to take, eligibility requirements and additional information resources.

Even if residents are not eligible for support, it cannot hurt to contact one of these agencies for assistance.  Even if you do not qualify for funding, many of them will have excellent information, counseling and guidance in where and how to approach the problem of covering rent and mortgage costs during hard times.

Rental assistance may also be available from the following:  

Rent & Lease Negotiations

It can be intimidating to approach a landlord or bank about your financial situation.  But it is also the strongest potential solution to your COVID-related challenges.  Many landlords are facing the possibility of considerable losses and would probably work with you to get a portion of the rent rather than losing you as a tenant altogether.

If approaching your landlord to negotiate, there are some pointers to keep in mind.

Firstly, and most importantly, make an interpersonal connection with a human person.  Try to get them on a video call via Facetime, Zoom, Skype, Teams, or Meetings.  Create a personal relationship and be transparent about your personal story.  Just filling out forms and template letters via email tends to stay in the bureaucratic and this is a situation that calls for a bit of humanity.

As it says in this article from Business Insider, “It’s important to remember that your landlord may be worried about the economic repercussions of the pandemic as well.  From this mutual concern comes the opportunity for both parties to be flexible and more willing to adapt to the current financial situation.”

The same article goes on to offer some other key advice for landlord discussions including:

  • Get your paperwork together and know exactly what you are asking for
  • Be sure to get your ask down in writing, possibly to include one of the email templates offered in another of their recent articles.
  • Research similar buildings to yours and their current rents and discounts.
  • Consider switching to a month-by-month plan, or another adjusted payment plan

For more help in preparing for and working with your landlord, contact one of the rental assistance organizations above or consider legal assistance.  Here’s a list from Solid Ground of great local legal assistance programs regarding housing.

Utilities

What good is a home without heat or power?  Well, in this rainy region, it is some good but not enough.  Luckily, the Governor also issued a moratorium on service disconnects and late fees through Dec. 31 for all energy, landline telephone and water utilities. 

Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light  are offering Utilities Discount Plans. Customers can request a deferred payment plan or apply for a utilities discount. \

Many other cities and utilities have similar plans. Here is a directory of utility providers who can provide more information and resources if you need help with your bills. 

For investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities in Washington, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission ordered a moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment until April 30, 2021. They also ordered utilities to continue to waive deposits for new customers and all late fees through Oct. 27, 2021.

For those needing additional assistance, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP makes energy assistance available to residents of Washington through a network of community action agencies and local municipalities. 

These organizations perform program eligibility determinations and award LIHEAP grants to eligible households. Each agency has their own procedures that will need to be followed in order to receive LIHEAP services.

Phone & Internet

Phone and internet access are less controlled and involved with the government.  However, many internet service providers are waiving late payment fees and will not disconnect customers for late payments. 

This Seattle/King County Resource Guide summarizes what phone and internet providers are offering right now from waived late fees to free unlimited data (p.5)

In addition, some companies are offering free or low-cost internet services. 

  • Drive-In WiFi Hotspots provide free temporary, emergency internet access for Washingtonians who do not have broadband service to their homes. Access is available to all residents with specific emphasis on remote learning for students. Additionally, this service can be used for job searches, telehealth, telework, unemployment filing, and census participation.
  • Comcast is offering two months free to new Internet Essentials customers in their service areas. Apply by by Dec. 31, 2020

AT&T Access & Ziply Fiber offer low-cost internet.

 

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

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