In a noble but misguided effort to combat racial discrimination, the City of Seattle passed a series of ordinances forbidding local landlords from choosing their own tenants. A “first in time” ordinance requires landlords to rent to the first financially-qualified tenant who applies. And the “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance” forbids landlords from considering applicants’ criminal histories. PLF represents several small-scale landlords 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 the City of Seattle. Kelly has enjoyed a mutually beneficial and respectable relationship with her tenants for the past five years. But if they move out, new city laws give her little to no choice over the next occupants.
Seattle City Council has enacted a series of ordinances in recent years to purportedly curb subconscious racial bias among the city’s landlords. In doing so, however, the city has trampled on the constitutionally protected rights of landlords to rent their property—in a nondiscriminatory manner—to whomever they like and at whatever price is freely negotiated. That is, the Constitution protects a landlord’s right to choose his or her tenants.
Represented by PLF, Kelly, Chong and MariLyn Yim, and a number of other small-scale landlords are taking on the city, one ordinance at a time. The first lawsuit challenged the city’s “first in time” law that went on the books in 2016. The measure forced landlords to rent their property to the first qualified applicant—even if the landlord has good reason to select someone else. If the first applicant declines to rent the space, the landlord must continue down the list in chronological order. On March 28, 2018, a trial judge handed victory to PLF’s clients, ruling the ordinance violates the landlords’ constitutionally protected choice to decide who to allow on their private property.
Now, Kelly and her fellow landlords have challenged the “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance.” City Council passed this rule in 2017, forbidding landlords from considering 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. (Landlords 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.) She and the other small rental property owners whose livelihoods depend on steady rental income have the right to choose tenants they believe will be reliable and compatible.
As with the first lawsuit, these landlords argue the Fair Chance ordinance violates the due process and free speech provisions of the Washington State and U.S. Constitutions.
Government cannot decide what landlords 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.