I have lived in Columbia City for 35 years, raising three children here. We have benefited from the cultural and economic diversity of Rainier Valley. I was able to purchase a duplex here and lived in one unit while renting the other. I became a landlord and have been one ever since. Nonetheless, I supported the city’s new “First In Time” law and was disturbed to read that King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien ruled against this law, passed unanimously by our City Council in 2016 to ensure that all rental applicants received fair treatment.
Key facts about this law are often overlooked. As Judge Parisien stated in her ruling, under the law “landlords are permitted to set their own rental criteria.” Specifically, the law allows landlords to set minimum credit scores, require positive references, and limit renting to applicants with previous evictions. But rather than focusing just on what landlords cannot do, it states what they must do: Provide applicants with the objective screening criteria they will use to select a tenant and then offer the rental to the first applicant who fully meets these criteria. Notably, property owners renting a basement apartment in their house, or a backyard cottage, are exempted completely.
As a landlord, I don’t see this law as onerous. On a small scale, I am in the business of renting. The City Council is allowed to set reasonable parameters on how I operate this business. It is good public policy for the city to prohibit implicit bias based on race, gender and sexual orientation.
Many landlords already operate on a first-come, first-served basis for qualified applicants as the quickest way to rent their unit. Even the Rental Housing Association of Washington advises landlords to operate this way to avoid discrimination charges. Current law already prohibits such discrimination. But as long as landlords can make their final decision based on “how they feel” or “what’s in their gut,” it becomes very difficult to prove discrimination.
For example, many landlords now can avoid renting to applicants receiving financial assistance from the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) Section 8 program even though this violates state law. Simply put, they can use “how they feel” to skip past “those people.”
These families, disproportionally people of color hit hard by the economic impact of racism, suffer the most from implicit bias. Yet in my own experience, qualified families using Section 8 vouchers bring several financial pluses: The bulk of their rent arrived on the first of the month from SHA. The balance came regularly from the tenant, who wanted to keep her apartment and voucher. Any landlord or tenant knows that renting has occasional bumps on both sides in tenant/landlord relations, but in my experience this isn’t any more true with tenants using Section 8 vouchers.
Judge Parisien, who owns a rental property, cited the threatened loss of landlord due-process, free-speech and discretionary rights. She ruled in favor of a suit brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, an organization that seeks to repeal affirmative-action laws while making property rights sacrosanct.
But before complaining too loudly about loss of discretionary rights, landlords should also think about the tremendous economic gains we have made in the last decade. In the past six years, Seattle rents have increased 57 percent, far outpacing any increased costs landlords face from taxes and maintenance. And then there’s property equity: The value of my duplex has increased by 120 percent in seven years. Given increases like that, is it really unfair to require that landlords jump through one more hoop for the greater good of our community?
As a resident, grandfather and landlord, I want to live in a racially and economically diverse city. I hope the city of Seattle will appeal Judge Parisien’s ruling and if necessary pass a revised law that achieves fair housing access for all of Seattle’s families.