Today, PLF sued Seattle over another newfangled experiment–the so-called “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance.” The ordinance prohibits landlords from doing any criminal background checks on potential tenants or turning down a housing application because of past crimes. The law’s purpose is to help former convicts reintegrate. Its effect is to strip landlords of their constitutional rights.
PLF is representing small-time landlords who have a right to know if the person they’ll be working with for years to come has a dangerous history. One of our clients, Kelly Lyles, is a single woman who has a right to protect herself by considering vital information about an applicant’s past. “Knowledge is power” is more than a cute aphorism for people like Kelly. Two other clients, Chong and MariLyn Yim, own and live in a triplex with their young children. They rent out the other two units and share the yard with their tenants. They have a right to protect their family and their neighbors through careful vetting of applicants.
PLF’s lawsuit rests on two claims: due process and free speech. The due process claim argues that the city has opted for an unreasonable and oppressive means to achieve its goal. The speech claim argues that landlords and the screening companies that serve them have a right to inquire about vital information like criminal history.
Landlords’ rights need not clash with the plight of former convicts. There are so many ways to address that plight in a constitutional manner, from reforming the criminal justice system itself to strengthening supportive public housing programs. Indeed, HUD guidelines already require landlords to take into account the circumstances of past offenses rather than reject anyone with a criminal background. This is not a zero-sum game.
I love Victor Hugo’s account of the roughened convict, Jean Valjean, welcomed into the home of a kind bishop after every door has been slammed in Valjean’s face. But the bishop took a grave risk, as the rest of the story shows. Taking risks like renting to a former convict demands careful discretion, good judgment, and–most importantly–personal choice. Seattle landlords have a right to know, and they have a right to use that knowledge to make their own informed decisions.