Seattle has other options to target housing discrimination besides the first-come, first-served rental law a judge just struck down as unconstitutional. Officials should work on existing anti-discrimination laws instead.
All people should have fair access to rental housing, no matter their religion, skin color, sexual orientation, age or disability status. This is more than an important goal — it is a right protected under state, federal and local law.
Yet Seattle’s attempt to curtail housing discrimination by requiring landlords to accept the first qualified renter who applies presents several legal problems of its own.
The first-come, first-served rental law, which went into effect last year, tramples the expansive property rights granted to landlords under the state constitution, King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien rightly noted in a March 28 ruling. The ordinance also infringes on free-speech rights by enacting rules for how property owners must advertise their rental units.
Yet differential treatment of renters in the housing market is a real problem, as Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights has found when conducting field tests on the issue.
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In 2014, the city found evidence in about two-thirds of test cases that landlords treated prospective tenants differently when they were a member of a protected racial group or of foreign origin. Similar differences in treatment were reported among testers whom the law protects based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Backers of Seattle’s so-called “first in time” law say requiring property owners to offer housing to the first applicant who meets pre-established requirements can mitigate this effect, preventing landlords’ unconscious biases from coming into play.
The problem is, Seattle’s ordinance simultaneously eliminates landlords’ discretion to choose one renter over another based on factors that have nothing to do with whether an applicant is a member of a protected class. For that reason, Parisien called the law “an unreasonable means of pursuing anti-discrimination,” citing “its sweeping overbreadth.”
City officials should not appeal Parisien’s sensible ruling.
Fortunately, the city has other options to promote fair-housing access, including a suite of anti-discrimination laws that remain on the books. These include prohibitions on discriminating against people who pay rent using low-income housing subsidies, as well as preventing landlords from denying housing to people who have previously been arrested or incarcerated.
These ordinances complement other federal, state and local laws that ban discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, disability, age, family size and other factors.
Officials at all levels of government should focus on enforcing these existing laws.
Ramping up such efforts — including by conducting more frequent fair-housing tests — is unlikely to break the bank. Right now, Seattle’s fair-housing testing costs the city $50,000 per year.
City officials should also continue educating landlords about anti-discrimination laws, while promoting best practices to help prevent bias in selecting renters.
Even without a first-come, first-served rental ordinance, public officials can still work to prevent discrimination in housing. To do so, they must diligently enforce the rules that already mandate fair and equal treatment for all.