Spokane Journal of Business

Tenant eviction cases jump in county

Landlords said possibly becoming quicker to act in some cases than in past

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Unlawful detainer filings, which are the legal documents landlords can use in Washington state to evict tenants who have violated rental agreements, have jumped in Spokane County this year by 250 cases, or about one-fifth.

Through the first 10 months of 2013, landlords filed about 1,440 unlawful detainer cases in Spokane County Superior Court, says Gary Berg, deputy chief to the county clerk. During the same period in 2012 and 2011, Berg says, they filed about 1,190 and about 1,300 cases, respectively.

While the number of filings is up, the volume is significantly lower than the highest recorded year for unlawful detainers in the last decade, which was just over 1,900 actions in 2004. Since the recession period began in 2007, the number of unlawful detainer actions has fluctuated, but has mostly remained in the 1,300 to 1,400 range.

When a tenant becomes noncompliant and the landlord wants to begin the eviction process, the first step is for the landlord to issue a notice to the tenant that he or she is in violation of the lease. The notice can give the tenant the option to comply or vacate within a certain time period, or in some cases, it might demand the tenant vacate.

After the notice is issued, the tenant can either comply or respond. If the tenant decides not to comply, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer action and get a hearing date set. At the hearing, a judge decides whether to ask law-enforcement officers to evict the tenant or dismiss the case. The judge might set a date for an additional hearing or trial, though some experts in the field say such actions are rare.

There are a variety of factors that could be contributing to the increase in eviction actions. Spokane landlord attorney Tom McGarry says that in prior years he had seen a trend of landlords waiting longer to take action against noncompliant tenants. However, he says, lately that trend has been reversing.

"I don't know if there are more applicants available, or if landlords are realizing that when a tenant is occupying but not paying rent, they're causing wear and tear to the property," he says. "However, it's very client-specific, how long they wait."

Eric Steven, another landlord attorney here says, though, that his practice is seeing landlords continue to wait longer to start the eviction process, similar to last year.

Steven says that in prior years, the dollars amounts in controversy he saw in eviction lawsuits were high, meaning that landlords were waiting longer to evict.

"I think that is still the case," he says. "I'm still seeing really high amounts."

Steven says he expects that as the economy continues to improve, landlords won't wait as long to start the eviction process.

Tenants fall behind on rent for a variety of reasons, McGarry says. He says that frequently, tenants have lost jobs, had their work reduced drastically, have mental health or substance abuse issues, or have a roommate who has left. While a tenant not paying rent is the most common reason for eviction, McGarry says, there can be other reasons as well, including criminal activity or failure to maintain the property according to the lease.

Barry Pfundt, a lawyer here with the Center for Justice, says he also has seen landlords, not just tenants, who are facing economic challenges. This could result from landlords not fully realizing what they're getting into by renting their property, both McGarry and Pfundt say.

"I think that many folks here have decided that, rather than selling their home, to rent it out, and they don't realize how hard it is to be a landlord," Pfundt says. "It's not an easy thing; it's a business, and it needs to be run like a business. It's not just something where you can cash a check every month; there's work involved in being a landlord. "

McGarry concurs, saying, "People a lot of times don't treat their rental like a business; they get more emotionally involved than is prudent."

Pfundt says that on his side of the eviction process, he also is seeing more and more cases.

"I can only take a fraction of the cases that come through our door," he says.

The Center for Justice is a legal advocacy organization that focuses on helping people with limited resources. It generally doesn't charge any fees for its services, Pfundt says. Tenants facing eviction can call the center and explain their situations. However, Pfundt says he believes that many renters in the community may not understand their options.

"Many of our clients are just trying to survive," he says. "They have to relocate their family and they don't necessarily think something bad happened here and I need to contact my attorney. If more of them knew about the resources available, they might."

McGarry also says that while he's starting more eviction cases than a year ago, he is also serving more unfiled cases.

To avoid higher fees, landlords can have their attorneys serve noncompliant tenants with unfiled summonses, instead of setting a hearing. If the tenant complies with the unfiled summons, it's not recorded with the county.

"My speculation is that I'm serving more unfiled," McGarry says. "I'm not setting as many hearings."

The initial fee for an unlawful detainer, if the landlord chooses an unfiled summons, is usually $85, McGarry says. That's less expensive than the $197 filing fee required by the court if a hearing needs to be set. There also are fees for the process server and the sheriff's office, which can vary depending on the situation.

"The sheriff charges a, usually, $75 advance if they have to go out to the tenant," McGarry says. "However, at the end, the fees can end up being more. But by statute, they have to charge those fees."

Despite the lower fees, the unfiled route does incur some risk for the landlord, he says. If tenants wants to buy themselves time before being evicted, they can answer the summons by requesting a hearing.

A typical unfiled case, McGarry says, can be resolved in as little as a week. If a hearing is required, the process usually takes between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half weeks.

The total cost of an eviction, for the landlord, can range from about $650, if unfiled, up to as much as $900 if a hearing is necessary, McGarry says. Steven puts the average cost for an eviction suit at $750 if uncontested and upwards of $850 if it is.

"It's remarkably different, depending on if the tenant answers the lawsuit," he says.

Steven says his practice hardly ever uses the practice of unfiled summonses. He also says his firm, which deals with every county east of the Cascade Mountains and Idaho, is filing more eviction notices this year.

"We're real busy over here, no doubt about that," Steven says. "The biggest thing I've seen lately is that occupancy rates are up and vacancy rates are down; there's less open housing."

Steven says that he settles many evictions out of court by having the landlord and tenant come up with a payment plan.

"A large percentage of cases I settle with payment plans, some of which allow the tenant to stay, and some that require the tenant to vacate," Steven says. "But we do settle a lot of cases."

Pfundt says that he also settles most of his cases.

"As with most civil litigation, once I get a chance to explain the circumstances, we settle a vast majority of our cases," Pfundt says. "But we go to hearing when necessary."

An interesting caveat of the law, he says, is that the Washington state Residential Landlord-Tenant Act says that the losing party pays the prevailing party's legal fees. So if Pfundt takes an eviction case to hearing and wins, the landlord must pay his legal fees, he says.

"I believe that the legislature put that in place intentionally to encourage people to settle these matters," he says.

When a filing results in an eviction, McGarry says, an important question arises: what to do with any property the evicted tenant leaves behind.

"The law has done some undulations on this in the last five to seven years," he says.

McGarry says that currently, after a tenant has been evicted and a statutory period, which can vary depending on the situation, has passed, any property they leave behind can be moved to the nearest public place. Previously, he says, there was a state regulation that landlords had to store a tenant's property after eviction.

"Now, it's discretionary on the part of the landlord unless the tenant requests storage," he says. "After the statutory period, the landlord can sell or dispose of the property."

Usually, McGarry says, what is left behind after an eviction is just debris.

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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