OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A debate over eviction reform Tuesday in Olympia was about as civil as one can expect in state politics.
House Bill 1453, which gives more rights to those facing eviction, went before the State House of Representatives Tuesday evening. It ultimately passed – mostly along party lines, with Republicans and three Democrats in opposition.
Still, lawmakers on both sides found the floor discussion refreshing.
“It was what we’re supposed to do here – civil discourse,” Rep. Andrew Barkis, a Republican representing Olympia, said of the debate.
That’s why a letter sent to him and other lawmakers just a day later was so hard to grasp.
“It sent shock waves through our Caucus,” he said.
The letter, addressed to lawmakers in the House and written on NAACP letterhead, was signed by Gerald Hankerson – a past NAACP president for Seattle/King County who now serves as president of the NAACP State Area Conference, according to his bio.
In the letter, Hankerson took aim at lawmakers who voted against the bill.
“This vote demonstrates that it is not only white people who uphold white supremacy in our system,” the letter read.
Two of the Democratic lawmakers who voted with Republicans to oppose the measure – Reps. Eric Pettigrew and Kristine Reeves – are black.
The letter continued:
“Our laws are designed to lock up Black men through incarceration - and lock out Black women through eviction. If the legislature does not pass eviction reform, then it is clear that neither party is serious about addressing racial inequity, housing instability, or poverty. We are tired of lip service.
"We demand the legislature actually takes substantial steps towards ending the racism within our housing market - and the first step to achieving this is by reforming our eviction process. Further, we will support efforts to unseat legislators who vote against tenant protections.”
To Rep. Barkis, the letter was an insult.
“It cuts, you know? I’m thick skinned. I wouldn’t be in politics if I wasn’t,” he said. “But it’s been difficult in our (Republican) Caucus today.”
On the Democratic side, Rep. Pettigrew said the letter amounts to a scare tactic.
"It’s a tactic to either control you or get you in a position to vote the way we want you to vote,” he said Thursday. “It’s saying, 'Mimic our position directly or else we’ll come at you with these sort of attacks or claims.'"
Pettigrew said his decision to vote against the bill as a Democrat came down to his experience as a landlord. He said giving tenants 14 days before any eviction process can begin isn’t fair to landlords, many of whom rely on rent to pay their mortgage and cannot afford to fall behind.
“Having conversations with landlords and being a former landlord myself, it seemed like it was just too much,” he said.
Reached by phone Thursday, Rep. Kristine Reeves (D-Federal Way) said she voted against the bill because of the experience of her 88-year-old grandmother, who owned a small duplex she used as a retirement investment.
"It was an opportunity for her to be able to have an income that she could then use to pay for her medication and her healthcare and her housing costs," she said.
Ultimately, Rep. Reeves said she was "90-percent" in support of the bill, but also found the 14-day extension for evictions to be too much for landlords like her grandmother.
“A the end of the day, I just want to make sure that I’m helping all working families in my district," she said. "This isn't about black or white, it’s about making sure that all working families can pay the bills and put food on the table.”
As for the letter, Q13 News reached out to the NAACP to inquire whether Gerald Hankerson was indeed writing on the organization’s behalf. An email seeking comment was not immediately returned from either Hankerson or the NAACP.
Hankerson has long been passionate about housing rights – a passion that may have informed the strong language used not only in the letter but also in previous interviews.
A convicted felon who spent more than two decades in prison, Hankerson told Q13 News in May 2018 that finding housing after his release was nearly impossible.
“Think about people coming out of prison that deserve to have a fair shot at housing,” Hankerson said during an appearance on “Bridging the Divide,” a Q13 News segment that brings opposing sides of an issue face-to-face.
The conversation between Hankerson and the other guest, a landlord, was about Seattle’s “Fair Chance Housing” ordinance, which aimed to give people with a criminal past more protection as renters.
The interview became so confrontational, that Q13 News ultimately opted to cut it short. At one point, Hankerson suggested the landlord, who was opposed to the ordinance, was defending racist policies.
“…It’s equivalent to the same argument we heard from the segregationists back in the Jim Crow era that said, 'we don’t want those folks to be living in my neighborhood, living in my buildings,'" Hankerson argued. “What policy can we put in place to make sure that black tenants don’t have the potential of being denied because they’re black? How are we going to hold landlords accountable to that?”
Hankerson made it clear during the interview, as he did in the letter he sent to lawmakers, that any opposition to removing barriers to housing is a matter of race, plain and simple.
But for Reps. Barkis (R) and Pettigrew (D), their negative reaction to the letter goes well beyond the suggestion that their votes supported “white supremacy.”
In the letter, Hankerson suggested lawmakers who voted against the bill may have done so for financial gain.
“It is even more troubling to hear that many of these lawmakers who voted no on this bill are landlords or related to landlords, and their vote seemed to be motivated more by personal financial interest instead of the well-being of the community,” Hankerson wrote.
Both Barkis, who has worked as a landlord and property manager for some 25 years, and Pettigrew said the accusation is without merit.
“There is no financial motivation at all,” Rep. Pettigrew said. “It’s more disgraceful to hear that attack on me personally than even to call me a white supremacist.”
Representative Reeves said she and other lawmakers are in the process of reaching out to Hankerson to talk.
"It's about extending him the courtesy that he didn't extend to us."