When rents skyrocket in a hot real estate market, landlords can afford to be choosy among multiple qualified applicants. But their biases, whether overt or unconscious, can cross the line into discrimination.
The City of Seattle has a long history with discriminatory housing, and now it’s in the midst of a growth spurt that has seen Seattle rents increase an eye-popping 40 percent over the past four years. And there seems to be no end in sight: Seattle’s current rate of rent increases leads the nation, coming in at four times the national average.
To protect tenants’ rights, last August Seattle passed a “first-come, first-served” renter law – the first such law in the United States. Inevitably, the law came under immediate attack.
The new ordinance, which took effect in January 2017, contains a package of rent policies designed to protect equal access to housing in Seattle’s hot housing market. Some of its provisions, such as a prohibition on discriminating against renters who use a subsidy or a verifiable alternative source of income, were accepted without much fuss. The first-come, first-served policy was less popular.
What the city calls “first in time” renting would require landlords to share their screening criteria with potential tenants, to time-stamp applications as they are received, and to review the applications in the order received. The rental unit must be offered to the first applicant who meets the screening criteria.
Both the local Tenants’ Union and the regional HUD office spoke out in favor of the ordinance, even while acknowledging potential problems with enforcement. While the Rental Housing Association of Washington agrees with the principal of the law—it advises landlords across the state to choose renters on a first-come, first-served basis to avoid discrimination claims—it has denounced the Seattle ordinance as burdensome and poorly written.
Landlords fight back
Many landlords already work on a first-come, first-served basis. Others are fighting the new law. Several have filed a complaint in King County Superior Court seeking an injunction against the City of Seattle.
Their suit claims that the “first in time” policy violates the state constitution and amounts to an illegal taking of private property. According to the plaintiffs, the new policy is also a violation of due process and free speech protections that increases a landlord’s risk when filling a unit.
Because this is the first policy of its kind, landlords and city councils around the country are watching this case closely, not only to see if the policy stands, but also to see if it works as intended should the city win.
Whether the law stands or not, the City of Seattle is already trying out new strategies to protect renters, who make up 54 percent of the city’s residents. On March 20, the Council created a renters’ commission—another national first—to explore new laws to help renters keep a roof over their heads in Seattle.