Washington State

Seattle Bans Landlords from Running Criminal Background Checks

A textbook case of good intentions gone awry


Seattle, Mount Rainier, Washington

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 want 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.