Spokane Journal of Business

Eviction actions on pace to rise by 10 percent this year

Spokane-area filings are lower than in mid-2000s, but are trending upward

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Eviction actions on pace to rise by 10 percent this year
-—Photo courtesy of Eric Steven
Attorney Eric Steven handles landlord-tenant cases in all Washington state counties east of the Cascade Mountains. He has noticed an increase in his caseload recently.

Unlawful detainer filings, which landlords in Washington state use to evict tenants who have violated rental agreements and ignored notices to leave, are rising again in Spokane County after having fallen significantly here between 2005 and 2009.

During the first half of this year, 736 unlawful detainer actions were filed in Spokane County Superior Court, says Gary Berg, deputy chief to the county clerk. If they continue at the same rate during the last half of 2011, the county would record about 1,470 eviction filings, an increase of about 10 percent compared with 2010.

Last year, 1,332 unlawful detainers were filed, Berg says, up just 2 percent compared with the previous year but reversing a five-year decline.

The current volume of unlawful detainer filings remains much lower than it was in the mid-2000s. During the last 10 years, the number of such civil actions peaked at 1,907 in 2004, and was 30 percent higher than last year's figure.

It should be noted, Berg says, that the record of unlawful detainer actions filed with the county includes both residential and commercial properties.

Two Spokane-area attorneys whose practices mainly focus on landlord-tenant law say they've been busier than ever in recent months.

Tom McGarry is one of those attorneys and deals exclusively with landlords. He says he's noticed recently that many of his clients are opting to serve a noncompliant tenant, or a tenant who's breaking a clause in a lease agreement and won't vacate, with an unfiled summons and complaint to avoid paying associated unlawful detainer filing fees to the county clerk's office.

"With that route, the fee is as little as $75 and it can be a benefit to the landlord because they spend less, and for a tenant there may not be a public record," McGarry says.

In Spokane County, the initial fee to file an unlawful detainer action is $75, and the landlord must pay an additional $112 if the defendant files an answer to the complaint requesting a hearing.

He says that if a tenant complies after being served the unfiled documents, there wouldn't be any record of such case on file with the county. Those unrecorded actions might have contributed to the decline in number of unlawful detainers through the late 2000s, he adds.

When a landlord decides to take action to evict a tenant, the first step is to serve the tenant a preliminary notice that he or she needs to comply with the lease agreement or vacate the property. A tenant who's not paying rent has three days to either comply or vacate, McGarry says. If the tenant does neither, the landlord then can serve them with an unlawful detainer and take further steps to set a hearing and have the tenant forcibly evicted.

If the reasons for eviction aren't related to rent payment—such reasons are defined in Washington state's Residential Landlord Tenant Act—a tenant can be served a notice to comply or vacate within three or 10 days, depending on the type of violation, before the landlord can begin the eviction process.

Those violations of the tenant's statutory duties include failing to clean and maintain the premise, the presence of waste or nuisance on the property, engaging in criminal or drug-related activity, and allowing another person not included in the original lease agreement to live on the property.

Regardless of the reason for eviction, McGarry says that in some cases a tenant and landlord can agree on a resolution, called an enforcement agreement, without the landlord having to file a formal complaint. Such an agreement might involve putting in place a payment plan so the tenant can repay any back rent that's owed and remain at the property, or an arrangement through which a landlord allows a tenant more time to move out.

"I think that most tenants are concerned about their records, and they don't want an eviction on their record because that makes it harder to find another place to live, so they are more willing to vacate or enter an agreement that allows them to vacate," McGarry says. "If they don't, the action then is filed."

McGarry cautions that in some cases, serving a tenant with an unfiled unlawful detainer isn't always the best route for a landlord because a tenant can file a counterclaim and thus force the landlord to file the unlawful detainer action and set a hearing, which prolongs the process and costs the landlord more in filing and attorney fees.

McGarry estimates that on average, his clients pay a total of about $750 in filing and attorney's fees in an eviction case, and the length of time for those cases to be resolved usually ranges from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 weeks.

If a landlord succeeds in an unlawful detainer case, the court issues a writ of restitution, or a termination of the tenant's residency, that then is served to the tenant in person by a Spokane County sheriff's deputy.

Another Spokane-based attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant law says he's also seen his workload increase in the last several months.

Eric Steven handles landlord-tenant law cases in all Washington counties east of the Cascades, as well as parts of North Idaho, and says he's noticed that despite that increase in his caseload, many of his clients are waiting longer to evict a tenant than in past years when vacancy rates were lower.

"The bad economy has a chilling effect on the number of evictions," Steven says. "There are more people coming in with higher arrearages."

He says that when vacancy rates were low about four years ago, landlords were less sympathetic to tenants owing unpaid rent or who were breaking other clauses in their lease agreement. At that time, he says, landlords didn't hesitate to file an unlawful detainer action. Now, Steven says he's seeing that many landlords he represents are waiting longer to file, and in some of those cases, they are waiting until a tenant owes several months of unpaid rent.

"They don't want to spend the money evicting one unit when they have several (units) ready" to lease out to new tenants, he says.

Steven says his large client base includes housing providers who are leasing rental units to tenants across the socioeconomic scale.

Another byproduct of the economy, he says, is an increase in the number of tenants who may never have had trouble paying for housing in the past and now are at risk of being evicted.

"We settle a lot of cases with payment plans so the tenant agrees to stay and pay off their debt," Steven says. "Good people have fallen on hard times, and it's not uncommon for a landlord to work out a payment plan through a court order that allows them to stay and pay what they owe."

McGarry concurs and says he's been surprised at the number of clients who come to him and say that they've allowed a tenant to reside in one of their properties while owing more than four months of late rent.

"The longer a tenant has gone without paying rent, the harder it can be to evict them because they are just used to it," McGarry says.

From a tenant's standpoint, Spokane-based attorney Barry Pfundt says he hasn't seen a reduction in the number of people here seeking legal assistance after they've been served an eviction notice.

Pfundt practices landlord-tenant law with the Northwest Justice Project, a statewide nonprofit that provides free legal services to low-income clients.

He says that most of the clients Northwest Justice Project helps to avoid eviction are able to come up with some kind of agreement with their landlord and are able to remain at the property.

"I think the hard times, ironically, can help both sides in some ways," Pfundt says. "Both sides are experiencing the troubled economy, and many landlords are willing, once they understand the circumstance, to come up with an alternative plan to avoid litigation."

Pfundt says one recent trend he's noticed in his practice is an increase in the number of landlords here who also are falling into financial distress, which can create problems for tenants as well.

"If a foreclosure is occurring and the bank becomes the new landlord, that can raise problems and be confusing, because the tenant doesn't know who to pay," he says.

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