How does Washington fix its eviction case backlog? A constitutional change is needed

May 24, 2024, 7:08 AM | Updated: 10:56 am

constitutional unlawful detainer...

Exterior of Jason Roth's rental property in Madison Valley, the subject of an unlawful detainer case in Washington. (Photo courtesy of The Jason Rantz Show)

(Photo courtesy of The Jason Rantz Show)

Jason Roth has been struggling with a nightmare tenant who rented his only home last year. Despite going through the legal eviction process known as unlawful detainer in Washington, Roth told the State Senate Housing Committee in January that the tenant is still occupying his South Seattle home after months of effort.

“I’ve been living in my van, couch-surfing and showering at my gym,” he said. “None of this makes sense to me, and I ask myself every day who wins in this situation.”

Roth was informed that a backlog of unlawful detainer cases in King County is pushing his court date back by six to eight months.

More on Roth’s tenant: Seattle homeowner’s ‘nightmare’ situation resolved one year later

He’s not alone.

King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Ketu Shah reported a 24% increase in hearings for unlawful detainer cases, resulting in months-long delays before hearings are set. King County has seen cases rise from an average of 57 per month in 2021 to 622 per month in 2024. As of March 31, 2,151 cases are pending, with only about a dozen resolved per day.

King County is struggling with this workload due to a constitutional requirement that unlawful detainer cases must be heard by a constitutional commissioner. Each county is limited to three commissioners, regardless of population size.

“This is where our system is broken,” Democratic Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, who is also running for governor, said. “We have 39 counties; some have 40,000 people, and some, like King County, have 2.3 million people — they all have a three-commissioner limit. We need to change the constitution.”

Republican King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn agreed.

“It might have made sense in 1889, but King County has a third of the state’s population,” Dunn said. “Three commissioners just aren’t going to get it done.”

A change to the constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both the state House and Senate. Dunn attributes the rise in unlawful detainer cases to the expiration of pandemic-era tenant protections.

“Most of those provisions have sunsetted, even in Seattle, and now landlords have the legal right to remove tenants from their property,” Dunn said.

Additionally, state legislators have assigned more duties to constitutional commissioners, including cases regarding guardianship, right to counsel and domestic violence protection orders.

“This is the trifecta that’s created our current headache and misery,” Mullet said.

More from Matt Markovich: Washington Republicans face internal feud over endorsements ahead of elections

Senate Bill 6210, sponsored by Mullet, proposed authorizing “statutory commissioners” to hear unlawful detainer cases and included $5.25 million to fund these positions. However, it was defeated due to additional requirements for income limits on state-funded legal representation in evictions.

Mullet believes a “clean bill” focusing solely on increasing constitutional commissioners would garner bipartisan support. Dunn is also seeking funding in the 2025 King County budget for more commissioners, pending legislative changes.

“I have a lot of anxiety if we don’t fix the system,” Mullet said. “We will end up with people not wanting to be housing providers in Washington because they feel there’s no certainty.”

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, or email him here.

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How does Washington fix its eviction case backlog? A constitutional change is needed