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Landlords Challenge Ordinance that Protects Former Prisoners’ Rental Rights

by Douglas Ankney

In May 2018, landlords in Seattle, Washington filed a lawsuit claiming the city’s controversial “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance” violates their constitutional rights. The Ordinance prohibits any person from refusing to rent to a prospective tenant, or evicting a current tenant, based on arrest records, conviction records or criminal history. If landlords or their agents conduct criminal background checks on potential tenants they could face a penalty of nearly $11,000, and up to $55,000 for repeat violations.

The Ordinance allows landlords to check sex offender registries, but even then they must have a “legitimate business reason” for denying tenancy to those who committed sex offenses as adults. If a juvenile committed a sex offense and is on the registry, that cannot be used for screening or eviction purposes. The Ordinance also restricts rental property advertising by prohibiting statements such as “no felons” and “must have a clean record.”

Two months after the Ordinance took effect, the Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHAWA) and Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) sued the city, arguing that it violates the free speech and due process clauses of both the Washington and U.S. Constitutions. 

“A member of the general public can easily look up criminal records,” said William Shadbolt, board president of the RHAWA. “This ordinance restricts landlords, who are considering entering into a long-term commitment, from looking at the same information.”

The Ordinance was passed in August 2017 to help prevent unfair bias against renters with a criminal record and to help them with reintegration into local communities. 

“I could not find a single landlord who would rent to me,” stated Augustine Cita. “My conviction at the time was over seven years old. I was a Journeyman Marble Mason at the time, earning almost $40 per hour, but I could not find a place to live.”

“When will my debt be paid?” asked Susan Mason, who was released from federal prison 14 years ago. Just two years ago she was forced to live in a boat, which she described as “really brutal.” It took her six months to find a place to live. She added, “Having a conviction history is like an economic death sentence set to a lifetime of unemployment and homelessness. No matter how hard you go, no matter what you’re presenting, it can be negated by that background check.”

However, Shadbolt said landlords are more concerned with public safety issues and the risk the Ordinance poses to tenants, neighbors and property. PLF attorney Ethan Blevins cited a “tragic example” in which an Illinois woman was raped and murdered in her apartment, and her family sued the landlord who rented to the alleged killer, who had a criminal record.

“Seattle can’t decide what landlords are allowed to know about potential tenants,” Blevins argued. “Landlords have the right to protect themselves by asking basic questions about a potential tenant’s criminal history.”

But Nick Straley, a staff attorney at Columbia Legal Services who supports the Ordinance, countered, “If there was a legitimate basis [for the landlords’ alleged safety concerns], they would be able to supply more than one single case from the Midwest.”

The Ordinance was also passed to help prevent racial discrimination in housing. Just 4.2 percent of Washington’s population is African-American, but they comprise 18.1 percent of the state’s prison population. The same is true for Latinos, who comprise 12.7 percent of the general population but over 23 percent of the prison population. Refusing tenancy based on criminal records unfairly targets those populations and has a disparate racial impact.

A spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office said in a statement they were “currently reviewing the complaint, which we’ve just received. We believe the ordinance is constitutional and plan to defend it.”

The suit, filed in King County Superior Court, was removed to a federal district court, which has stayed the case pending answers to certified questions submitted to Washington’s Supreme Court. See: Yim v. City of Seattle, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:18-cv-00736-JCC. 



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Related legal case

Yim v. City of Seattle