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Seattle appeals ruling against first-in-time rental 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, was overturned in late March—and today, the Seattle City Attorney’s office appealed that ruling.

A group of landlords had filed a suit in King County Superior Court, alleging 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.”

City Attorney Pete Holmes disagrees.

“The Washington Supreme Court has always intended to follow federal due process and takings law, even under the Washington Constitution,” said Holmes in a statement. “The problem, as seen by the Superior Court’s ruling, is that our Supreme Court previously misstated that federal law, leaving other courts confused. I’m hopeful the Justices will restore clarity and consistency for this case and beyond.”

“Only this Court can remedy the confusion over Washington’s due process and takings law,” reads the appeal text. “The City respectfully asks this Court to accept direct review, recognize the correct federal analyses, abrogate past decisions to the extent they invoke incorrect analyses, and reverse the Superior Court.”

Upon learning of the city’s plan to appeal late last month, Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHAWA) board president William Shadbolt categorized the appeal as a “waste taxpayer dollars and public resources on an issue which clearly did not benefit the most vulnerable renters in the city.”

“We believe that the State Supreme Court will agree that First in Time is a clear violation of our state constitution and decline to hear this appeal,” said Shadbolt in an emailed statement.

The first-in-time law 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.

RHAWA Interim Executive Director Sean Martin disagrees that the law helps renters. He said in a statement back in March that overturning the law “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.”

“First-in-time is good policy that helps landlords screen tenants and avoid claims of fair housing violations,” said City Councilor Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle on City Council, in a statement at the time. “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.”

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.