Photo: Protest for rent relief and against evictions in Tri-Cities, Wash. Liberation photo
With a patchwork of eviction moratoriums leaving millions of working people at imminent risk of losing their homes, Emergency Rental Assistance offers many working people a chance to stay housed. In counties across Washington state, millions of dollars have been set aside to help with rents to prevent evictions.
In Yakima County, $28 million has been allocated for rental assistance. The first round of assistance, which ran from September 2020 through January 2021, distributed only $2.5 million, according to the official website. The current round of funds is set to end when all funds are spent, or until June 30, 2023, whichever comes first. The program offers up to 12 months of assistance for qualifying households, which would take a heavy burden off of many tenants’ shoulders, though funds are paid directly to the landlords. Unfortunately, the county has made this money extremely difficult to access.
Rather than making application forms directly accessible to Yakima County residents, the Yakima ERA system relies on five different agencies working mostly independently to handle application screening. Only one of these agencies has an online application form for tenants. The others are accessible only by phone or email, or at their physical offices, which means a 4-hour round-trip drive for some Yakima County residents.
Because of the high demand for aid, all five agencies are completely overwhelmed by the number of applicants. Tenants can do little more than leave their name and number on a waiting list with one of these agencies, sometimes for up to two months. After it is accepted, a tenant’s application will finally be placed in a lottery pool — then, they must wait for their name to be drawn. With the federal eviction moratorium having already ended amidst an extremely uncertain economic situation, many tenants cannot afford to wait weeks or months before they receive financial assistance.
While tenants are waiting to hear back about their applications, they still are not protected from eviction. Landlords are still willing and able to kick people out of their homes for rent owed during the moratorium period. Even before the end of the moratorium, landlords were already conducting illegal lockouts and evictions regularly, according to the Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services. Despite multiple crises stacking on top of each other — COVID-19, fuel shortages, and a very cold winter on its way — it is likely building owners will push forward with more evictions in the coming months rather than wait to see if their tenants’ funds are distributed.
Even with a looming rent crisis, Yakima County seems wholly uninterested with fixing the broken system in front of them. Even worse, the Treasury Department has stated that county governments which cannot distribute their Rental Assistance money effectively will have their funds redistributed to counties that can. Without a better program to distribute funds, housing aid will not be available at all for those who need it.
Organizers and tenants demand a better system
In nearby Benton and Franklin County, organizers have spent the last several months going door to door in Tri-Cities providing Emergency Rental Assistance applications, information on tenant rights, and resources for how to handle evictions.
“This is inexcusable. The people of Yakima County have a right to stable housing, and the local government has a duty to provide it,” said housing activist and organizer Scott Howland from Benton County.
“It should be made as efficient and accessible as possible to ensure that the people who need help get help. Applications should be readily available and not needlessly gatekept,” added Howland. “As a result of Yakima County’s aid structure, it’s been difficult for those of us doing housing justice work to connect people with the resources they need. It’s like the county doesn’t want the aid money getting to those who need it.”
The situation in Yakima County is looking increasingly dire. Thousands are at imminent risk of losing housing in the coming months and little is being done to prevent this. The situation is developing into one in which working-class people will have to work militantly to resist evictions and provide relief to the already-houseless.
Community members are already building strong networks with their neighbors to fight back against the abuses of the owning class, such as Yakima Community Aid, which has organized mutual aid for the houseless in Yakima and some surrounding areas for the last few years. The Selah Alliance For Equality in nearby Selah, Wash., has also been a major source of community organizing efforts. Such organizations represent part of a grassroots movement to address the real problems of working people in Yakima County.
However, there is more work to do in building programs for eviction defense. As Scott Howland reminds, “Housing is a right and a basic necessity. Demand nothing less.”