Washington State

Seattle Bans Landlords from Running Criminal Background Checks

A textbook case of good intentions gone awry

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Seattle, Mount Rainier, Washington
juliwatson/pixabay

Good intentions often lead to bad policy. Consider a new Seattle law that bars landlords from screening prospective tenants for any criminal history.

Passed Monday, the Fair Chance Housing ordinance prohibits landlords from excluding prospective tenants because of their criminal history, from requiring or conducting criminal background checks of those prospective tenants, or from charging them higher rents and security deposits.

"You've paid your debt to society if you've served your time," wrote the bill's sponsor, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, in an August 11 blog post. "Blocking formerly incarcerated people from accessing stable housing is an extrajudicial punishment not consistent with the rule of law."

It's true that our current criminal justice system unnecessarily tars citizens with arrest records and criminal histories, and that those criminal histories make it more difficult to find jobs and housing. But attempting to mitigate the effects of a broken criminal justice system by foisting extra costs onto landlords—who have quite understandable reasons to wants to know about tenants' criminal histories—is not the answer.

"I think landlords will still want to know if someone has been convicted of arson or drug manufacturing," said Sean Martin, external affairs director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, in a recent debate on the law. Yet under this ordinance a landlord can take virtually no criminal offense into account when choosing whether to rent to someone, no matter how serious or how recent the violation is. The only exception is for registered sex offenders.

As Martin points out, this will make the business of renting out apartment units more risky, and landlords will respond to that risk by toughening the screening requirements they are still allowed to use.

"They are going to raise the other criteria that you can have in place, credit scores and things like that," Martin said on the local radio station KIRO. He also noted that some landlords are planning to sell their properties instead, because "they don't want to be out there with the risk involved."

Martin agreed that there "is a problem of mass incarceration." But he added, "We don't feel it should be landlords' obligation to solve a societal problem."

Ironically for a law that seeks to mitigate the harms of a punitive criminal justice system, Seattle's new ordinance calls for a mix invasive enforcement and heavy punishments.

The Seattle Office of Civil Rights is empowered to investigate any claims of "adverse action" by landlords, which include not just denying tenancy or charging higher security deposits, but also more minor offences like refusing to add a current occupant to a lease. A landlord could then be required to pay damages, provide rent credits, or mitigate their discriminatory actions through targeted advertising to affected communities.

Any participation in this "conciliation" process also mandates landlords attend anti-bias training courses. Should a landlord not opt for re-education, they can be fined $11,000 for a first offense, $27,500 for two within a five-year period, and $55,000 for more than two violations within seven years.

Seattle has already hit landlords with a raft of regulations on how they can use their property, including caps on move-in fees, strict limits on no-cause evictions for month-to-month leases, and requirements to accept tenants on a first-come, first-serve basis. Despite (or perhaps because of) all this, Seattle has one of the priciest rental markets in the country and a worsening homelessness problem.

Making the rental business more risky, and therefore more expensive, will only add to the problem.

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  1. And, of course, the city will assume all financial responsibility should a tenant re-offend, and the landlord get sued for renting to a criminal he is not allowed to know about?

    1. Seems to me that if you follow that line of reasoning to it’s conclusion, you need to keep all criminals locked up forever, or anything they do is the state’s fault.

      1. Trap, neuter, and release.

      2. Or you simply that you need to keep a record about them forever, and use it when needed to assess how much of a risk they might still be. Kinda exactly like they already do.

        1. But in a society in which accepting any risk whatsoever can lead to financial ruin or even prosecution, that leads to ex-convicts having no access to jobs, housing, or other essentials for returning to normal life. Since they can’t be expected to volunteer to die for our convenience, that means they are forced into illicit, underground lives, in which they are more of an inconvenience and danger to society than if they were allowed to return to the world with a clean slate.

          1. Perhaps but if we are going to presuppose a society with an unreasonable legal system, you’re kind of at a dead end. Covering our asses is the least we should have the right to do. We certainly won’t fix it by stacking new unreasonable requirements on the public. The city council can just as easily protect landlords from liability.

            I know convicts who were given second chances after explaining their past. I also know of people that were victims of convicts they gave second chances to.

  2. How much to do you want to bet that there will at some point be an outcry about landlords renting to rapists who then rape other tenants?

    1. I imagine there or already laws in place that potentially punish a landlord who does not maintain a safe environment on the premises. There are a lot of unintended consequences in this law.

      1. There are a lot of unintended consequences in this law.

        Fortunately the parts that ignore an individual’s Constitutional and natural rights to freedom of association and property are quite intentional.

  3. Well, black people, say goodbye to renting.

    1. When you take away the ability to discriminate on individual behavior, you know that’s what’s going to happen.

      1. You just say that you have other offers and politely refuse to rent to that person.

        The lefties have made it so you cannot actually tell people anything. If you give answers of more than yes or no, than you are setting yourself up for some legal action.

        1. That’s why, under administrative law, you’re guilty until proven innocent.

        2. This is why we should get rid of all the lefties.

    2. Yep. There’s substantial evidence that that happened with “Ban the Box” initiatives. People just assumed that black people were criminals, and whites and Asians weren’t. Good for whites with records, bad for blacks with clean ones.

  4. Seattle has already hit landlords with a raft of regulations on how they can use their property

    Use *its* property. It’s Seattle’s property, its value lies in the fact that it’s inside the Seattle city limits, you didn’t build that.

    1. Only a few regulations away from a worker’s paradise devoid of property rights.

  5. “””As Martin points out, this will make the business of renting out apartment units more risky, “”

    Which will require more laws and bureaucracy. It’s a feature, not a bug.

  6. And I wouldn’t bet on the “good intentions” and “unintended consequences” thing – Hanlon’s Razor only goes so far and when you’ve got openly socialist officials who despise capitalism and the whole idea of private property, it’s easy enough to suspect they’re not just accidentally ignorant of economics, they worked damn hard at it.

  7. I reckon the poor and lower class folk can just keep on leaving, just knowing the city meant well will be enough.

    1. Its a great was yo get rid of poor people without saying you’re getting rid of poor people.

      On paper it seems to lefties that they are doing some great thing and cannot be blamed if poor people leave and their cushy neighborhoods are mostly lefty white people.

      Seattle is 69.5% white people as of 2010 census.

      1. Jesus Reason… Its a great idea to get rid of poor people without saying you’re getting rid of poor people….

  8. “Blocking formerly incarcerated people from accessing stable housing is an extrajudicial punishment not consistent with the rule of law.”

    Did I miss the part where the state was blocking them? Or am I to believe that actions by private individuals is the same thing as state-enforced punishment?

    “”I think landlords will still want to know if someone has been convicted of arson or drug manufacturing,” said Sean Martin, external affairs director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, in a recent debate on the law. Yet under this ordinance a landlord can take virtually no criminal offense into account when choosing whether to rent to someone”

    Not that this will get in the way of state attempts to pursue civil forfeiture.

    1. Did I miss the part where the state was blocking them?

      We’re all part of the state now, comrade.

      1. That really is the way they look at things. Government is just the hub of “our” society. Landlords are one of the spokes. I guess the little people make up the tire that’s ground against the road all day every day.

  9. Add a rider to the law. Any legal fees arising from a crime committed by a tenant who would have been screened out will be paid by the Seattle City Council Members. Not the city, not the taxpayers, the actual council members.

  10. “Blocking formerly incarcerated people from accessing stable housing is an extrajudicial punishment not consistent with the rule of law.”

    That’s…not how rule of law works?

    1. Isn’t this an implication that they’re willing to let us peons enforce certain judicial punishments? I call fines and liens!

    2. “That’s…not how rule of law works?”

      We’ve raised a generation that thinks that.

  11. It of course never occurs to these people that maybe they could do something about the laws that are sending all these people to prison in the first place. It’s not like they have some kind of control over the laws or anything. Nope, just more mandates and more punishment.

    1. See, it’s like grade inflation. They are trying to reduce the after effects of being convicted of a crime. You might think the correct procedure is to reduce convictions and laws which can lead to convictions, but you are obviously not university-educated. When too many students get poor grades, the solution is not to get better students or teachers, it is to eliminate the poor grades. Then when too may graduates can’t read or write, the solution is more and better welfare and a higher minimum wage.

      It’s all the same material, comrade.

  12. I never used to think of Seattle as the hotbed of radical progressive dumbonomics, but recent stories have led me to believe that Portland at it’s Portandia worst is reactionary right wing in comparison.

    Maybe it’s the lack of sunlight that causes it.

    1. Much of the rest of Washington is pretty hickish, and with just as little sunlight. It’s the big city effect.

      1. West of the mountains is pretty sunny.

        1. East of the mountains.

    2. Portland wishes it could be Seattle. Seattle wishes it could be San Francisco. San Francisco wishes it could be Soviet-era Moscow

  13. The only exception is for registered sex offenders.

    And there goes their argument that their criminal history is irrelevant.

    1. Well, “sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous.”

      1. And murder isn’t?

        Rape is a terrible, terrible thing, but there are much worse things you can do to people.

        1. “Rape is a terrible, terrible thing, but there are much worse things you can do to people.”

          Psychologists say that’s how serial killers evolve. They eventually get bored with the raping and escalate to things that are more exciting.

          1. First rape. Then rape followed by killing. Then just killing. And finally killing followed by raping.

            1. Can’t it be both?

              1. So unambitious.

              2. Just get the Dildo of Death from Se7en, and you can do both at once.

    2. “For the children” is the highest trump in the deck.

    3. Naturally they chose a crime with a below average recidivism rate as their exception. They wouldn’t want any logic to infect this exercise in stupidity.

    4. “You’ve paid your debt to society if you’ve served your time,”

      So do she agree with removing the other state enforced restrictions on previously incarcerated citizens rights eg. voting, or firearms?

    5. How do I know someone is a registered sex offender without a background check?

  14. Any prospective tenant has the right to know the landlord’s criminal history, though, right? RIGHT?!

    1. That’s a great thought. Next time I’m house hunting, I’ll bring some release forms and ask the landlord for permission for criminal background and credit checks. You can’t be too safe, right?

    2. Right to know? No. Just like the landlord doesn’t have a right to know. Renters can ask for references just the same as landlords. Either can respond or not as they choose, and each can make a determination how to proceed from there based on the response received. Problem solved.

      1. You sound like someone who isn’t a landlord.

        1. You sound like someone who makes assumptions. Your assumption is wrong.

    3. Property is theft, so obviously your landlord has a criminal history.

      (Am I progging right?)

  15. Are you still allowed to ask for proof of income? Because why should someone have to prove that they can afford to pay you before you hand them a good or service?

    1. You better be able to. It’s largely a requirement for a mortgage to buy a house.

  16. If you committed a crime and served your time, you should be treated as any other citizen.

    But it’s a bit worrisome that landlords can’t even perform a background check on applicants. When I apply for a job if often have to indicate whether I was convicted of a crime in the past. They make clear that it doesn’t necessarily disqualify me from consideration, but you would think my coworkers and employers have a right to know about this.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a stealth sanctuary city policy. I just… don’t see any good coming out of this.

    1. Another huge issue is that this isn’t the major problem with their high homelessness rate. Other cities have criminals too, yet they don’t have the housing problem of Seattle.

    2. but you would think my coworkers and employers have a right to know about this

      They don’t have a right to know, but your lying about it to your employer would definitely be grounds for dismissal.

    3. They make clear that it doesn’t necessarily disqualify me from consideration

      That’s usually a lie.

  17. The landlords will just have to assume anyone with bad credit is probably an ex-con.

    1. Or anyone with dark skin…

  18. Will the city government now forswear investigating the criminal backgrounds of people applying for permits and licenses? Will past criminal activity no longer be considered in sentencing newly-convicted criminals, or in parole hearings?

    Fuck the goose, fuck the gander.

  19. The solution is to get rid of easy online access to criminal records. That’s what made this background check nonsense possible. If those who wanted background checks had to send someone to the courthouses where the person being checked previously lived to look at them in person, then record checking would once again be prohibitively expensive. And, of course, once someone has fully completed their sentence and is no longer under any parole or post-sentence restrictions, the record should be sealed and unavailable to the general public. The alternative to letting convicts make a fresh start is the creation of a permanent class of desperadoes prohibited from living normal lives. That’s not working out.

    1. The alternative to letting convicts make a fresh start is the creation of a permanent class of desperadoes prohibited from living normal lives.

      Is your world really that black and white? Those are the only two outcomes you can imagine, expunge an individual’s criminal history or face a world of desperadoes?

      I was always partial to Witchy Woman myself.

      1. It’s not my world, it’s the world. The desperadoes expelled from normal society do exist, and they are a constant and growing inconvenience and danger to the rest of us. The more we extend extra-judicial punishments, the bigger a problem and danger they will become.

        I didn’t say records should be expunged. They just should not be easily available to the general public. If someone is applying for a security clearance or some other special position for which such scrutiny is necessary, the records. should be available.

        I don’t know who Witchy Woman is.

        1. I didn’t say records should be expunged.

          You, at 4:15: the record should be sealed and unavailable to the general public.

          I don’t know who Witchy Woman is.

          Seinfeld reference. Lighten up.

          1. “Expunged” means the records are destroyed and permanently unavailable to anyone. I don’t advocate that. I just think they should be sealed for most purposes, including background checks by landlords and employers.

        2. Witchy Woman is one of the X-Men.

  20. Enacting ever more restrictive regulations on landlords encourages them to sell their properties to the city govt at lower prices.

    And of course those regulations will never be applied when the city govt is the landlord.

  21. And yet landlords will still be legally liable for renting to a rapist when he rapes again. Ain’t the legal system wonderful? At one time I considered buying some property to rent out (thereby increasing the supply), but hearing how you can’t evict tenants in my state changed my mind.

  22. One suspects landlords can create criteria which essentially screen out those recently incarcerated. For example, requiring tenants, for each of the past three years, to have either rented privately owned their own place, with appropriate exceptions, such as being int the military, or living with a seek relative

  23. Has the government of Seattle never heard of parole and probation? Just because you’re no longer in jail doesn’t mean you have paid your debt to society.

  24. The west coast is a lost cause. I’m not sure how they ended up that way.

  25. Yeah and when he rents to a serial rapist or pedophile and that model citizen who has paid his debt to society unleashes his natural tendencies on other tenets who suffers. The landlord because we are a sue happy nation and there probably will be a mass exodus of his tenets.

  26. So now we have a government that is going to send you to a re-education facility – probably one where a lot of people are concentrated in one place, so that the re-education process can be performed more efficiently. It will certainly not be unpleasant – likely someplace that will remind everyone of the happy days they spent at summer camp. Now we just have to find a catchy, appropriate term to describe this place…. hmmmmm….. what comes to mind?????

  27. Don’t ya just love the Hippy state? My advice is to move to a more sensible city in another state to invest your money.

  28. “You’ve paid your debt to society if you’ve served your time,” wrote the bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Lisa Herbold,”

    The Councilmember is looking backward, not forward, and entirely misses the point.

    What’s the point? The likelihood of FUTURE CRIMINAL ACTIVITY FOLLOWING RELEASE from jail or prison.

    Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
    Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
    Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.
    Property offenders were the most likely to be rearrested, with 82.1 percent of released property offenders arrested for a new crime compared with 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders.

    These are National Institute of Justice data from a large scale study. Although that particular study is more than ten years old, the scope of the study makes it highly unlikely that more current data would show a dramatically different result. Therefore – in my own opinion – the concerns of Seattle landlords are reasonable and the Seattle law is not.

    .nij.gov/topics/corrections/recidivism

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