A judge’s ruling against Seattle’s first-come, first-served law for renters means a harder time finding housing for people who tend to be discriminated against, say supporters of the law who are reeling from the decision.
“We’re very disappointed in the ruling and hope there’s an appeal,” said Merf Ehman, executive director of Columbia Legal Services, which pushed for the City Council to adopt the law in 2016.
By allowing landlords to “go with their gut,” Wednesday’s ruling restores opportunities for discrimination and hurts “people who are low-income, people of color, people with disabilities, people who are gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual,” Ehman said.
“With vacancy rates so low and rents so high,” she added, “it’s more important now than ever to keep the playing field level.”
Since last year, the city’s law has allowed landlords to screen for characteristics such as credit scores while requiring them to publicize their criteria and accept the first qualified applicant.
When landlords can choose among qualified applicants, their biases may come into play — and that can lead to discrimination, the law’s proponents say.
Existing laws prohibit landlords from choosing tenants based on characteristics such as race, gender and disability. But proponents of Seattle’s law argue bias can be hard to prove and say landlords sometimes discriminate unconsciously.
“This was supposed to cut down on what I call cherry picking,” said Gina Owens, a renter and advocate with Washington Community Action Network.
“When you have the conscience that allows you to turn one person away even though they’re qualified … you’re telling them, ‘I have a preconceived notion of who you are and I don’t want you in my building.’"
In her ruling, King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien called eliminating implicit bias a “laudable” goal, but struck down the law as “an unreasonable means of pursuing anti-discrimination because of its sweeping overbreadth.”
Choosing a tenant “is a fundamental attribute of property ownership,” Parisien wrote, siding with landlords who accused the city of violating their rights to property, due-process and free-speech rights under the state constitution.
Deputy City Attorney John Schochet said the city is weighing whether to appeal and what to tell landlords and renters to do. Ethan Blevins, attorney for the landlords, said he believes the city can no longer enforce the law.
Plaintiff Kelly Lyles hailed the ruling as “some sanity being restored after the council’s overreach,” saying the law was well-intentioned but has caused some landlords to stop advertising or to sell or convert properties into vacation rentals.
“The current law felt very unsafe,” Lyles said, calling the landl0rd-tenant relationship personal, to some degree. “To not be allowed to trust my gut was terrifying … It’s my life savings and my life at stake, let alone the safety of the neighbors if I was forced to rent to someone with anger or violence issues.”
Landlords have said the law backfires by encouraging them to raise their criteria and by advantaging renters with the time and resources to apply quickest.
Ehman has a different view. The judge didn’t sufficiently consider “the social science and how our brains work,” she said.
“People don’t like to think of themselves as discriminatory,” said Ehman. “But our gut instincts can be discriminatory. We know good people discriminate even when they don’t intend to.”
Nor did the judge understand “the impact of discrimination on people and how we’re trying to undo the history of housing discrimination in our city,” Ehman said.
During a public debate in the 1960s, she said, some Seattle landlords made similar arguments about their “right to choose.” Four years before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination nationwide, city voters rejected an open-housing law.
In an email last month and at a hearing, Parisien disclosed she owns a rental property in the city. “I believe I can decide this matter fair and impartially but wish to apprise the parties in the event I am asked to recuse myself,” she wrote.
The city made no such motion, said Schochet.
“I think her status as a landlord helped her understand the underlying issues well, but I don’t think it prejudiced her,” said Blevins.
Ehman said Parisien’s ownership could be concerning because the judge “has a stake in the outcome.”
Councilmember Lisa Herbold has said she wants the city to appeal, and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda joined her Thursday.
“I’m a renter myself,” Mosqueda said, objecting to the narrative “that somehow this legislation was intended to say that all landlords are bad.”
“I have a great landlord,” she said. “We just want to make sure that there are common practices all landlords adhere to so nobody is being discriminated against.”