On Tuesday morning, the Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHAWA) and Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) announced a lawsuit against the City of Seattle over a law that bans rental restrictions based on criminal records.
The challenge to the ordinance, filed in King County Superior Court, was filed on behalf of three landlords, and alleges that the law violates landlords’ constitutional rights to due process and free speech—the latter, Ethan Blevins of PLF argued, because it “embodies the right to receive information.”
“Our office is currently reviewing the complaint, which we’ve just received,” Seattle City Attorney spokesperson Dan Nolte told Curbed Seattle on Tuesday afternoon. “We believe the ordinance is constitutional and plan to defend it.”
The law, which went into effect this past February, prevents landlords from screening applicants based on criminal convictions; arrests that didn’t lead to a conviction; records that have been expunged, vacated, or sealed; and juvenile records. If a juvenile tenant is on the sex offender registry, that can’t be used for screening, either, but only juveniles—the ordinance cites a 2004 study that juvenile sex crimes have a low recidivism rate.
The law, which was a recommendation from Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, originally allowed landlords to screen tenants for recent criminal convictions and exempted landlords that live on the premises, but the version passed by City Council ended up broader, only exempts landlords that share a kitchen or bathroom with their tenants, or that rent out an accessory dwelling unit. Small landlords who manage four units or fewer are also exempted from the law, and the law does not apply to sex offenders who committed their crimes as adults.
William Shadbolt, a landlord board president for RHAWA, said that “we’ve seen a barrage of legislative attacks on our industry by the City of Seattle” in recent years that landlords can’t handle. “The City of Seattle council is more inclined to pass legislation that forces small mom and pop landlords to struggle to deal with larger societal ills that they’re simply not able to cope with,” said Shadbolt at a press conference. “If the City of Seattle is serious about reforming the criminal justice system it should focus on reforming the criminal justice system.”
“It’s not the Wild West out there in the screening world where landlords can just deny someone and have a blanket policy to criminal records, ‘I’m not even going to look at anything,’” added RHAWA interim executive director Sean Martin. “We have federal [Housing and Urban Development] guidelines that make it very prescriptive.”
A release from RHAWA suggests a simple “ban the box” legislation—just removing the checkbox requiring applicants to disclose prior to a background check—plus aggressive enforcement of those HUD guidelines, expanded public services, and additional supportive public housing.
RHAWA has also previously advocated for a local Certificate of Restoration of Opportunity program, similar to a program that operates on the state level, where someone with a criminal conviction could appear before an impartial panel for a certificate that they could then take to a small landlord.
Despite the guidelines, some with criminal convictions still found it difficult to find housing after serving time before the ordinance took effect.
“You look on Craigslist and they’ll have huge letters that say no felons and clean criminal history,” Shari Wade, a Seattle resident who was previously convicted of a felony, told Curbed Seattle soon after the law was passed. “I mean, what do you expect if you do not let someone back into society and you continually shun them? What do you think is going to happen?”
Wade ended up homeless for six years while she searched for housing. “I had Section 8 housing and they kicked me off of it because of my felony,” said Wade. “So I had no place to take care of my children.”
“You’re constantly living in the past,” Wade continued. “You can never transcend yourself and move on... People that don’t have records, I’m sure there’s stuff they would not have to relive every day.”
At the press conference, Shadbolt acknowledged that the United States’s incarceration rate per capita is “wrong,” but suggested that the city lobby at the federal level for criminal justice reforms and focus on “root causes.”
RHAWA previously sued the City of Seattle over a law to cap move-in fees for tenants. The group also successfully sued to overturn a law mandating that landlords rent to the first qualified applicant, a decision that the city intends to appeal.
This article has been updated with a statement from the Seattle City Attorney’s office.