Seattle

Seattle Sued Over Law Banning Landlords From Conducting Criminal Background Checks

Violators are required to take classes to reduce racial bias.

|

Ben Goode/Dreamstime.com

In August 2017, Seattle made it illegal for landlords to decline potential tenants because of their criminal history, or even to perform a criminal background check on people looking to rent their property. Now a collection of landlords is suing, claiming the so-called Fair Chance Housing Ordinance is unconstitutional.

On Tuesday, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a public interest law firm, filed suit on behalf of several small-time landlords who are concerned about the financial and personal safety risks of being unable to screen tenants for past wrongdoing.

The PLF's complaint claims that the Seattle law violates landlords' due process rights under the 14th Amendment by imposing an "unreasonable, overbroad, and unduly burdensome" regulation. The complaint also says the law runs afoul of the First Amendment by denying landlords access to publicly available records.

"The landlords we are representing are especially impacted by their inability to look at criminal history," says Ethan Blevins, an attorney with the PLF. "They have a lot of interest at stake, both personally and professionally."

The plaintiffs include Chong and MariLyn Yim, who live with their three children in one unit of a triplex; they rent out the other two units. The Yims share a yard with their tenants and occasionally leave their kids at home alone. They therefore place a lot of value on being able to vet people with whom they will be living in such close proximity.

The same goes for Kelly Lyles, another plaintiff, whose income comes almost entirely from renting out a west Seattle home she owns. Missing even one month's rent would be a disaster for Lyles, and she does not have the resources to pursue an eviction action if necessary, according to the complaint. Lyles consequently puts a lot of stock in being able to select reliable tenants.

Also party to the suit are Eileen, LLC—a husband and wife owned property management company—and the Rental Housing Association of Washington, a trade association for small landlords that offers its members criminal background check services.

Even before the passage of Seattle's Fair Chance Housing ordinance, landlords were already operating in a "very highly regulated area," says Blevins.

As of 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that landlords perform "individual assessments" of rental applicants, meaning they cannot categorically exclude applicants for past arrests or convictions. Washington state law also forbids criminal background checks from reporting convictions older than seven years.

But Seattle's law—the first of its kind—goes much further by prohibiting landlords from asking about any criminal conviction whatsoever, whether be it an old drug charge or a domestic violence conviction from last year.

The only exception is for registered sex offenders. Even here, however, a landlord would have to show a "legitimate business reason" to refuse to rent to the applicant, such as the severity of the crime and the time elapsed since it occurred. Concern for the landlord's personal safety is not considered a legitimate reason, and neither is the safety of other tenants.

The Seattle Office of Civil Rights is tasked with investigating any claim of "adverse action" taken by landlords against current or potential tenants because of their criminal history. Violators would be required to go through a "conciliation" process where they might be required to pay damages, provide rent credits, or reinstate tenancy. They would also have to attend training courses designed to reduce their "racial bias and biases against other protected classes in tenant selection."

Landlords who fail to accept these sanctions would be subject to civil penalties starting at $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.

This puts landlords in an impossible bind, says Blevins, given that past Washington state court cases have held that landlords have a legal obligation "to take reasonable steps to protect tenants from foreseeable criminal conduct of third parties on the premises."

The PLF suit also cites a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Illinois against a property management company that failed to conduct a criminal background check on a tenant who later killed another tenant.

Interestingly, the Seattle Housing Authority—which manages housing projects in the city—still requires criminal background checks of its tenants, as required by HUD guidelines for recipients of federal housing assistance.

Since the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance went into effect in February, landlords have been scrambling to compensate for the risks they are no longer allowed to screen for. The Yims say they are raising their rents to absorb the risks of the new law. Other landlords are tightening credit score requirements and other screening mechanisms across the board.

William Shadbolt, president of the Rental Housing Association, said at a Tuesday press conference that landlords were selling their rental properties en masse in response to the new law. Rather than give a leg up to those with criminal convictions, Seattle's law may make it more difficult for convincts to find housing, by encouraging landlords to take units off the rental market.

Attempting to reintegrate people with criminal convictions into society is a laudable goal, particularly given our current justice system's propensity to unnecessarily tar citizens with arrest records and criminal histories.

That being said, landlords obviously have legitimate reasons to want to know about their tenants' criminal history. Denying them the chance to even inquire about the subject makes these property owners less able to make individual determinations about tenants and more risk-averse across the board.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

79 responses to “Seattle Sued Over Law Banning Landlords From Conducting Criminal Background Checks

  1. I’ll bet the law doesn’t absolve the landlord from injured tenant claims when the guy with sixteen priors in the next apartment breaks in and robs and stabs the tenant. Here in Penna. the day time lawyer ads are always chasing the “if you are injured at a store, a business, or in your apartment, and the owner didn’t take steps to protect you, you may be eligible for a large cash settlement.”

    1. Even worse. We have direct evidence of various government entities using civil forfeiture to seize full residences for any drug related crimes that take place there. From a teenager having stuff in his bedroom without his parent’s knowledge; to people hanging around motels, etc.

      Seattle, with their budget problems, probably sees this as a win-win. make it illegal for people to protect themselves from possible forfeiture.

  2. So this policy exists for employers in some places, and as you might expect, it has the opposite effect than intended.

    1. The NLRB under the prior administration (I don’t know if they have given up on this under the Trump Administration) was pushing a regulatory ban on criminal background checks for employment.

      They kept pushing this policy despite multiple losses on the issue in court, and went so far as to argue in court that employers that are under a state law statutory requirement to conduct criminal background checks and are prohibited by said state law from hiring felons, such as nuclear power plant operators and armed security companies, were not exempt from their regulatory ban on criminal background checks.

    2. An article in the Atlantic that wasn’t 15,000 words?

    3. When I explained that I shot somebody in the back of the head, she didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.

      Say what? That’s nuts.

      1. I mean who hasn’t done that once or twice?

    4. From your link:


      That’s because, they say, when employers cannot access an applicant’s criminal history, they instead discriminate more broadly against demographic groups that are more likely to have a criminal record.

      The paper indicated that this type of discrimination is especially prevalent in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, where there is a larger pool of non-black applicants to choose from. In the South, because such a large proportion of job applicants are black, the opportunity to discriminate is reduced, the paper finds.

      Wow…talk about something that’s going to get zero traction on TV news.

      1. We had a duplex in New Orleans, that we rented out. When people called us to inquire, I could determine race, by the speech accents etc. Since we rented to 3 different races over the decades, I soon discovered that one race, IN EVERY CASE, failed to pay the rent on time or trashed the place to some extent. Therefore, we ended up saying to this race, “sorry, the place is already rented.”
        And mind you, I was once jailed for supporting civil rights in Baton Rouge, for removing the segregated rest-room signs from the county courthouse. I am not a racist, just a logical businessman, trying to earn honest money.

        1. “Racism” is really a lazy epithet used by the left against people who actually use the human capacity to make judgments about other people based on observed patterns of behavior. You have a right to protect your property and do what you can to ensure that its rental results in profit for you, not loss. If the government takes away that right, you have to do exactly what you’re doing.

        2. CRAZILY ENOUGH I know exactly which race you’re talking about. It’s probably the race that’s 12% of the population but responsible for 50% of the murders, and is equally disproportionately represented for assaults, robbery, rape, and every other thing you can think of.

          The fact that some groups are deadbeats and dysfunctional as all hell isn’t your fault… It’s their fault. There are lots of shitty white trash folks out there too, but on average poor white people commit far fewer crimes than poor people of that other race we shall not name. Facts are facts.

  3. The PLF is 3-0 against the city of Seattle in the last few years (city income tax, allowing garbagemen to look through peoples trash and fine them if they threw out too much food waste, and the law that required landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant). About to be 4-0. You’d think that at some point Seattle residents would get sick of the legal bills the city keeps racking up.

    1. You’d think that at some point Seattle residents would get sick of the legal bills the city keeps racking up.

      Can you really put a price on woke?

    2. That is just like the promises that politicians make to the unions to get them to back them. Higher wages, larger and more comprehensive benefit plans and retirement that starts much sooner and winds costing the city/state more than the wages political units had to pay while the person now retired cost. But the politicians get more than it cost them and tax payers seems to continue to reelect them so they are not upset yet. So they will get away with as long as these political entities are not held accountable for damage this causes.

  4. So convicted criminals are now a protected class. Wow.

    1. More than property owners too.

      Seattle is becoming a garbage city.

      1. Seattle is total trash! Nobody wants to move there, and their economy sucks too. Now the OKC….that’s where the future lies my friend.

        1. Do you ever have anything to contribute beyond running interference for retarded leftist policies?

        2. I hate to be the bearer of bad news buddy, but people ARE streaming out of the city. I’ve lived here a long time, and I know TONS of people who have already bailed, and many more who are planning on it. Same can be said for San Fran. It’s just not worth the nightmare to a lot of people anymore. It used to be a nice, pretty city where the lefties were almost tolerable… Now it’s jumped the shark, and I’m out too, along with my businesses. I’ll go somewhere where I’m appreciated instead of punished.

  5. You would think that SOMEBODY would read these articles before they are posted. I’m a linguist, and I’m tolerant of non-standard English, but not on this kind of website when there are errors that are just plain careless:

    by encouraging landlords from take units off the rental market.

    particularly given our current justice system’s propensity to unnecessarily tars citizens with arrest records and criminal histories.

    Didn’t they once have editors who checked for this kind of thing? It makes the site look stupid. (cue comments….)

    1. Tar and feather. Tars. Looks legit to me.

      1. Nope, wrong tense & or number. Should just be tar in context. And the article appears to have been fixed accordingly.

        1. Ah yes. Take out the “‘s propensity to” and tars would be legit. Been a long day.

        2. Apparently someone is actually reading the comments! Who knew!!!

          1. The Shadow knows!

            1. Why did you have to bring young Alec Baldwin into this?

    2. *sigh*

      It’s a blog post. Their editors are busy doing what editors do, which is edit magazine articles. You want perfect prose, buy the magazine.

    3. You are meanspirited to point out that the public schools cannot teach actual English language skills despite a bazillion percent increase in funding per pupil.
      Neither the writers nor the reviewers know anymore than the Google checker. If it is not underlined in a wavy red line, it must be correct.

      1. You know that there are creative reading, writing and math in schools these days. It is correct as long as it is close or an adequate effort is made. So all is good.

    4. How about “Cue” you fucking moron. If you understood it, it’s good enough.

      Fuck off, prescriptivist.

  6. Interestingly, the Seattle Housing Authority?which manages housing projects in the city?still requires criminal background checks of its tenants, as required by HUD guidelines for recipients of federal housing assistance.
    Do as I say, not as I do. Can’t lose those federal funds!

    1. This case is utter bullshit and won’t hold up.

      1. What I mean to say is, Seattle’s law won’t hold up. Boy did that sound like the opposite the way I wrote it.

    2. So the city sues the housing authority.
      How is that a bad thing? The lawyers have to get into the one percent so the city can tax the hell out of them to pay for the law suits they litigate.

    3. The politicians cannot change what the federal government required for HUD housing but they sure could require the rest of the population to bow down to the god of rules and regulations that they the politicians created.

  7. “occasionally leave their kids at home alone”

    CAN’T ALLOW THAT!

  8. This is almost comically sadistic and Orwellian. And yes, the obvious result will be to jack up rents for everybody and then the city will just have to outlaw that too until every racist thought is permanently banished from the citizens.

    1. And when every last rental property is taken off the market because the owners don’t want the hassle, then what will Seattle do?

      1. Achieve perfection?

      2. Pass another law requiring everyone to own a rental property?

      3. At some point, people who live in Seattle will say, “You know, I really don’t need to live in Seattle.”

        1. North Bend is prettier anyhow. And you can catch a train to Safeco field to catch a Mariners game (or cross the street for a Hawks game) and not have to bother with parking downtown.

    2. I wonder when they’ll figure out the correlation between the rents going up and the county spiking property taxes every year.

      Oh, but in the prog’s mind, the wealthy Simon Legree property owner is just supposed to eat the tax increases as punishment for being a filthy capitalist imperialist pig.

  9. How do criminal background checks differ in impact on the freed convict from sex offender registries?
    Both continue punishment of people that have served their time, and need to re-enter ‘civilized’ society.
    If the crook is dangerous, don’t let them out; if they are not dangerous, why allow discrimination?

    1. 1) If I can get sued for not screening tenants, then I damn well better be able to background check them.

      2) How about freedom of association – I’ll do business with whomever I want. If you find my questions intrusive, find another landlord that isn’t as picky.

      3) Seattle has very favorable tenant laws – it’s practically impossible to evict someone and you have little recourse if they trash the place on the way out. Given the high correlation of felony convictions with people with poor impulse control, it’s not unreasonable to want to know who you’re doing business with.

      1. I’m surprised Seattle still has any landlords, who in their right mind would wan’t to deal with all of that?

        1. The number is shrinking. Hence the “housing crisis”.

          1. And yet year after year, the Seattle City Council does everything in it’s power to make the problem worse.

            1. Such as proposing a head tax on employers that make to much money, the largest of its kind (to pay for the homeless). Amazon expected to be hit the worse (Amazon who is already looking for new headquarters will pay more than $20 million if the head tax passes).

              1. I like Bezos’ response, though. “Want to play games? OK, I’ll stop building new buildings LOL.” Construction stops immediately. Hope he starts building in Bellevue or Everett or something just to piss off Seattle even more.

                Unhinged Kshama Sawant and the rest of the prog-nazi council are determined to kill whatever livability Seattle had left. These parasites won’t be happy until there are no employers left. Between $15/hr minimum wage, soda taxes, the employer head tax, proposed city-wide income tax, proposed no-driving zone fees, useless cops who do nothing but issue tickets and shoot mentally ill people, the garbage and stink of homeless everywhere, plus the general viciously smug leftist passive-aggression of Seattle residents, the city’s pretty much an overpriced shitshow. They desperately want to be Portland or SFO but fuck up pretty much every attempt to copy either.

                They’re collecting a shit-ton of money that just disappears into a black hole of “administrative costs” and consulting fees. Nothing is ever done about the homeless problem, and billions for transit results mostly in new ways to punish drivers for “participating in car culture.”

          2. Thats not a symptom of the housing crisis. In fact people who’ve purchased second homes to rent out are abundant in cities where property values are skyrocketing. The “crisis” is that the average wages cannot afford the average rent or purchase price of a house.

            1. There is no “crisis.” There are people who think they are entitled to live wherever they want, even if they cannot afford to pay the market price for housing in their preferred neighborhood. The Seattle housing non-“crisis” is caused by entitled whiners who want to live in extremely popular and chic neighborhoods but pay below-market prices for homes and rentals. No one is entitled to someone else’s property for cheap or free. No one is forced to work at a job that pays them less than they think they’re worth. The laws of supply and demand apply no matter what’s done to suppress them.

              This isn’t a new issue. Everyone but the very richest people has always had to compromise on where they lived. My commuter bus is full of people who live in the ‘burbs but commute into the heart of the city. Nobody’s going to die from living in a neighborhood that isn’t fashionable or right next door to work.

              The “crisis” is helped along by ridiculous levels of regulation that prevent construction of more and varying types of housing.

            2. No, this is the crisis. Housing starts lag behind demand increase in cities like Seattle and SF, as opposed to Houston or Atlanta; which is why the latter are much more affordable.

              Stop with the mental gymnastics to justify leftist narratives. Wages aren’t ‘too low.’ Average wages in Seattle are much higher than almost anywhere else in the country. It’s that cost of living is so much higher there that sets Seattle apart, and the main factor is housing costs, due to a dearth of supply.

    2. Why “allow” discrimination? WTF is that comment doing on a libertarian board?

    3. How do criminal background checks differ in impact on the freed convict from sex offender registries?

      The sex offender registry will by law restrict the liberties of the person put on it. Private employers asking about the criminal history of potential employees is an entirely voluntary interaction.

      1. Sex offender registries are unconstitutional.

    4. The question is, do property owners have a right to use personal judgment in who they’ll let live in their property?

      Criminal convictions is only one part of the equation. Do property owners have a right to be hesitant to rent their property to a group of Hell’s Angels, or a band? Those are ‘group memberships’ that might get some understandable resistance to a homeowner/landlord renting his property.

  10. There’s no way this could lead to landlords using increasingly unrelated proxies to screen applicants, which would never turn into institutionalized artificial barriers to entry we can’t even remember the point of. You crazy libertarians.

  11. The the city should put up a bond for damages and disputes for every tenant. Or landlords should go out of business and let the city implode. Either way works

  12. I became a real estate investor – landlord because I would not have to deal with the corporate or their bureaucratic b******* that most employees have to endure.

    Now, the Jack booted thugs have decided to unleash their totaltarian rules and regulations upon us. So, even though you are an individual investor and self-employed you have to kowtow to the whims of the overlords.

    Could there ever be a time when our country moves more toward Liberty and less toward rules and regulations? Not in my life.


  13. Concern for the landlord’s personal safety is not considered a legitimate reason, and neither is the safety of other tenants.

    Wow. Just…wow. If your personal safety or the safety of others isn’t a good enough reason, than needless to say there is likely no reason good enough for Seattle at all.

    This is…actually evil. Good job, Seattle. You’re evil now. What’s next, quartering troops in people’s homes?

    1. How else can they be sure, really sure, that the laws are being properly obeyed?

  14. “Violators are required to take classes to reduce racial bias.”

    So the city assumes cons are of a certain race?

    1. Well that’s because they are statistically, and they know it. White folks and Asians just don’t get arrested that often for things that are too bad…

  15. denying landlords access to publicly available records.

    Oh, FFS!

    “I’m looking at this shit in my capacity as a member of the public, not as a landlord.”

    “Then Seattle won’t mind renting part of this office building for MS13 headquarters, right? RIGHT?!”

  16. I am closely related to people that rent out several apartment buildings, homes, condos and duplexes. They describe the current political situation as “anti-landlord” to the extent that several people have commented that the City of Seattle obviously wants to actively take over all rentals and cut the property owners 100% out of the calculation. It is generally understood that this scenario involves a transfer of title to the city with no compensation to stop the landowners from putting units up for sale as condos or just stop renting out MIL units.

    The resident commie on the city clowncil has been caught commenting that they should force people to house the ever-expanding junkie population.

  17. Now just how would it be to file a suit to force the city to be liable for any damages that these tenants did that would not have have happened if the criminal background checks could have been conducted?

  18. Wasn’t this law already struck down back in March?

    1. No, the “you must accept the first qualified applicant for your rental” is a different regulation than “you cannot refuse to rent to people based on their criminal history.”

  19. More insanity from the lunatic left.

  20. And now Seattle is planning a 26-cents per hour per employee tax to fund housing for the homeless.

    Simultaneously raising the cost of living and driving down employee hours and wages as businesses cope with the additional $540 expense per employee per year.

    And the call it “a tax on big business”!

    Gotta love that progressive mentality.

  21. Now a collection of landlords is suing, claiming the so-called Fair Chance Housing Ordinance is unconstitutional.

    I think if you choose to be a landlord in Seattle, you get what you deserve. Don’t waste the taxpayer’s money with your legal cases.

  22. The easiest way to deal with this is just require a 700+ credit score and an insanely high, verifiable income. Any ex-con who has awesome credit and makes 100K+ a year has probably learned their lesson! Either that or you could just illegally racially profile… I suspect people are doing all of the above.

  23. I would actually support this law. A person who has been in prison has done the time. They should NEVER be discriminated against for housing. As long as they are willing to abide by the law and the terms of a lease then that’s all that should matter.

    One impetus behind this law, as I understand it, was to make it easier for the most reviled group of ex-felons to find decent stable housing. That group is registered sex offenders. No one wants to rent to them simply based on the label “sex offender”. That is why I think this law is a good thing. I support it to the hilt. I think that neighbors would have the right to know if an offender who presents a particular risk to children lives next door, but at the same time the family with kids would be put on notice that any rude or abusive/harassing behavior toward their registered neighbor would not be tolerated and would result in eviction. On the opposite side of this balance, the offender would be told that interacting with minors would not be tolerated either and that such behavior would result in his or her immediate eviction.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.