In August, the Seattle City Council approved a “first come, first served” policy requiring landlords in the city to rent to applicants on a first come, first served basis, provided the applicants meet the minimum screening criteria set by the landlord. This law breaks new ground, as officials are unaware of any other U.S. city with a similar policy. Though not codified in other jurisdictions, this is a policy that many landlord associations recommend and many landlords find to be the best practice. However, pushback is not coming on the merits of the policy, but rather the way that it is being forced on the city’s landlords.
According to council member Lisa Herbold, who championed the policy, the goal is to ensure prospective renters are treated equally. She adds that when landlords pick one renter among multiple qualified applicants, their own biases – conscious or unconscious – may come into play.
The council posted proposed rules for public comment, and the policy which was set to take effect on January 1, 2017 has been delayed until July 2017, but the basic framework of the policy is as follows:
Prior to accepting a prospective renter’s application, landlords must provide the renter information on the landlord’s minimum screening criteria. When the landlord receives a completed application, the landlord must note the date and time that the application was received. The landlord must then screen multiple applications in the order they were received and make offers to qualified renters in that order. Prospective renters won’t know their position in line, but they can request that the Seattle Office of Civil Rights (SOCR) investigate by checking a landlord’s records. Prospective renters may also sue landlords if they believe they were skipped in a deviation from the first come, first served policy requirements. The policy does include exceptions, including when renting to specific vulnerable populations, such as domestic-violence survivors and applicants with disabilities. The policy will be enforced by two SOCR staff members, costing taxpayers more than $200,000 in 2017.
Proponents of the policy hope it will reduce discrimination, but opponents point out that anti-discrimination protections in rentals already exist, and argue that the new policy goes too far and removes too much subjectivity from landlords in deciding who will occupy their real estate. Landlords such as Don Taylor, who rents out a small building off Aurora Avenue North, claim to use subjectivity in situations that do not involve discrimination. He recalls choosing one qualified applicant over another because her salary was lower and he suspected that she would be less likely to purchase a home and move out. He adds, “the longer you can keep a tenant, the better off you are. I don’t care whether you’re black, white, or purple.” Eli Goldberg wrote in The Seattle Times that “stripping landlords entirely of their decision making is just plain wrongheaded” and calls the policy a “social-engineering experiment.” Eli further predicts that the policy will cause rents to increase, rental units to be pulled off the market, and rentals to be removed from public advertising. He concludes succinctly by stating “we deserve a say in who moves into our properties.” Further, Sean Martin, spokesman for the Rental Housing Association of Washington questions whether the policy will advantage potential renters with cars, smartphones, and free time over people who ride the bus and work several jobs.
Proponents of the policy recognize the landlords’ concerns, but believe the benefits of the policy outweigh the cited drawbacks. In December, the council met to consider delaying implantation of the policy to July 1, 2017, at least giving landlords more time to prepare for the policy.