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Washington state lawmakers push to provide lawyers for residents facing eviction

Washington state lawmakers push to provide lawyers for residents facing eviction
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A bill up for final approval by the Washington state Senate aims to provide attorneys for some low-income residents facing eviction, which would make it the first state to enact such a measure.

The bill, a draft of which was initially passed in the state Senate and was approved with amendments by the House on Thursday, would provide lawyers for tenants who meet certain qualifying conditions. 

Those eligible to receive legal representation from the state include residents receiving certain public assistance, individuals who have been committed to a mental health facility, those who can’t afford an attorney or those who have incomes at 125 percent or below the federal poverty level, according to The Seattle Times.

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Jim Bamberger, director of the state’s Office of Civil Legal Aid, praised the legislation, telling the Times that it “is a powerful statement on the part of the legislature in terms of balancing power in the justice system between tenants and landlords.”

“And I think it will work, honestly, in favor of both,” he added.

However, an amendment added to the bill Thursday night has prompted concern from housing advocates, as it would end Washington state’s eviction moratorium on June 30, the same day the federal order halting the practice amid the pandemic is set to expire.

Bamberger told the Times that if passed, the bill would require his office to hire 58 additional state attorneys, which he said may not be logistically possible in less than three months. 

However, some state lawmakers have pointed out that the amendment would temporarily require the state to provide rental assistance directly to a person’s landlord if a program qualified tenant does not have access to a lawyer starting July 1. 

“The argument that the day the moratorium ends people are going to be on the street is just false,” state Rep. Andrew Barkis (R) told the Times. “It takes months to go through the eviction process.” 

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“We believe there will be plenty of time for these things to get set up,” he added. 

Bamberger noted that the legal representation program will likely cost his office an estimated $11.4 million in the first year. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced late last month, three days before the existing federal eviction moratorium was set to expire, that it would be extending the temporary ban on coronavirus-related evictions through the end of June. 

CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyTop CDC official who warned of pandemic disruption will resign CDC director: Vaccinated adolescents can remove masks outdoors at summer camps CDC: COVID-19 cases, deaths projected to drop sharply in mid-July MORE said in a statement at the time, “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a historic threat to the nation’s public health. Keeping people in their homes and out of crowded or congregate settings — like homeless shelters — by preventing evictions is a key step in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.” 

However, concerns have erupted in recent days after a new guidance issued by a Texas judicial advisory panel gave the green light for state courts to openly defy the CDC moratorium, putting hundreds of thousands of Texans at risk of being removed from their homes.