September 28, 2018

Seattle can’t ban criminal background checks

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney

Does a landlord have a constitutional right to ask about someone’s criminal background before renting to them? Today, PLF filed a brief in Yim v. City of Seattle unveiling the (obvious) answer: Yes!

Seattle’s “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance” forbids inquiries into a rental applicant’s criminal history. And just in case a landlord stumbles upon that history anyway, the law also prohibits landlords from rejecting someone because of their criminal history. Whether an applicant was mistakenly arrested for a false charge years ago or just got released for second-degree murder, Seattle has placed that information under lock and key.

Landlords have a right–indeed, even an obligation–to learn about the people who apply to live on their property in order to protect their investment, themselves, and their other tenants. Take our clients, the Yim family. The Yims own a triplex. They live in one of the units with their kids and rent out the others. They share a yard with their renters and their kids are sometimes home alone. Surely they have a right to know if the people they’ll be inviting to live in their triplex with them are violent felons or sex offenders. Another client, Kelly Lyles, is a single woman and a sexual-assault survivor. She has a right to know if her rental applicants have engaged in crimes that might endanger her.

This right to know is ensconced in the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee. Just as we have a right to share information, we also have a right to receive information. The government cannot blindfold us just because they fear what we might do if we could see.

Of course, people reentering society after incarceration face a tough road, and government can exercise its power to make the road smoother. But this can be done without hiding important information from the people who’ll bear the risk of associating closely with ex-cons. The City could have, for instance, expanded its supportive housing programs. Instead, the City exempted public housing. This does not comport with fairness or the First Amendment. We’re confident the federal court will agree.

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Yim v. City of Seattle

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.

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