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Court rules against Seattle’s first-in-time law

The rule required landlords to accept the first qualified candidate to apply

Joel Askey/Shutterstock

After a year tied up in court, Seattle’s “first-in-time” law, which requires a landlord to accept the first qualified applicant to live in a rental property, has been overturned.

A King County Superior Court decision yesterday agreed with a group of landlords that the law violates a property-rights provision of the state constitution.

Judge Suzanne Parisien, who The Stranger reports owns rental property, said that the rule “violates the ‘private use’ requirement.”

The rule was initially passed in August 2016 to combat implicit bias resulting in housing discrimination. In 2015, the city’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) conducted a sting of rental properties, submitting applications 97 times focusing on three different groups protected by Seattle housing law.

The office found that 64 percent of tests found evidence of different treatment due to a disability, 31 percent due to familial status, and 63 percent due to a Section 8 voucher.

2014 tests found different treatment based on race, national origin, and sexual orientation around two-thirds of the time for each group.

Even with the evidence of implicit bias, Judge Parisien said the measure is “unreasonable means of pursuing anti-discrimination because of its sweeping overbreadth.”

In a statement, the Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHAWA)’s interim executive director Sean Martin said he’s “pleased that the court recognized the rights of rental housing owners to decide how to lawfully operate their private property.”

Despite the OCR findings, Martin said that the ruling “restores the ability for rental housing owners to provide opportunities for under-qualified renters who would otherwise have difficulty with being first in line to apply for a rental unit or meeting higher screening criteria standards.”

“The City Attorney’s office and I disagree with today’s ruling,” said city councilor Lisa Herbold in an emailed statement. “First-in-time is good policy that helps landlords screen tenants and avoid claims of fair housing violations. If landlords won’t screen tenants in a way that intentionally addresses bias, we have no recourse but to increase fair housing law enforcement because the reality is that, intentionally or not, far too many landlords are discriminating in the practices they use to select renters.”

Herbold said she’d like to see the city challenge the ruling.

The City Attorney’s office, said spokesperson John Schochet, disagrees with the ruling and is studying it to determine next steps.

The decision could also effect a recent one-year moratorium on “rent-bidding” platforms like Rentberry. A recent City Council vote put such platforms on hold while the city examines the platforms’ effect, including compliance with city laws like first-in-time and equity issues.

This article has been updated with statements from Lisa Herbold and the City Attorney’s office.