Lost: U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the first-in-time rule

In a misguided effort to combat racial discrimination, the City of Seattle passed a series of ordinances forbidding local housing providers from choosing their own tenants. The city’s “first-in-time” rule requires landlords to rent to the first tenant that applies and satisfies written rental criteria. PLF represented 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, Seattle’s laws give her little to no choice over the next occupants.

Represented by PLF, Kelly, Chong and MariLyn Yim, and a number of other small-scale housing providers took on the city, one ordinance at a time, starting with 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.

As a result, housing providers cannot exercise their basic judgment about who they want to enter into a long-term business relationship with. The ordinance thus strips away the fundamental right of a property owner to decide who to allow onto their own property.

On March 28, 2018, a trial judge  handed a victory to PLF’s clients, ruling that the ordinance violates the landlords’ constitutionally protected right to decide who to allow on their private property. Unfortunately, in 2019, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently declined to review the first-in-time rule.

What’s At Stake?

  • Government bureaucrats cannot deprive property owners—who have no track record of discrimination—of their constitutionally protected right to choose their own tenants.

Case Timeline