In a misguided effort to combat racial disparities in housing, the City of Seattle passed the “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance,” which forbids housing providers from considering applicants’ criminal histories, usually uncovered in a standard background check. PLF represents several small-scale housing providers who are denied their constitutionally guaranteed choice to decide who to allow on their private property.
An artist by trade, Kelly Lyles earns a modest living as a small-scale landlord, renting out a second house she owns in Seattle. Kelly has enjoyed a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship with her tenants. But if they move out, new city laws give her little to no choice over the next occupants.
One such rule is the “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance.” The City Council passed this rule in 2017, forbidding landlords from asking about or relying on applicants’ criminal histories when selecting tenants. This means Kelly cannot base a rental decision on factors like personal safety or concerns about sex offenses or crimes against children. (Housing providers can deny someone tenancy if they are on a sex offender registry for a crime committed as an adult, but only if they can prove to the Seattle Office for Civil Rights that they have a “legitimate business reason” for doing so.)
But the bottom line is that government cannot decide what housing providers are allowed to know about potential tenants. And landlords who enter into a long-term rental relationship have the right to protect themselves and their livelihoods by asking basic questions about an applicant’s criminal history.
Kelly and her fellow small rental property owners whose livelihoods depend on steady rental income have the right to choose tenants they believe will be reliable and compatible.
Represented by PLF free of charge, Kelly, Chong and MariLyn Yim, and a number of other small-scale housing providers are fighting back in a federal lawsuit. The district court ruled in the city’s favor on July 6, 2021, but the housing providers have appealed.