The Seattle Office for Civil Rights is studying whether waiving fees or cutting costs for workers of certain select companies, such as Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing, potentially violates anti-discrimination rules.
Because Mercedes Elizalde’s partner worked for Microsoft, the pair didn’t pay the $400 move-in deposit normally secured for their apartment.
That special, known as a “preferred employer” discount, is just one of many that landlords offer renters citywide to attract employees of large Seattle firms, such as Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing.
Elizalde, an advocate for low-income housing and former Seattle City Council candidate, said the practice struck her as unfair to people who don’t work for the selected companies or who struggle to pay for housing.
“We have landlords giving discounts to people who can very clearly (pay) landlord costs,” she said. “If they’re waiving them for a group of people, then that means they’re putting the costs on others.”
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Elizalde and city leaders discussed the issue at a meeting this summer that focused on fair-housing rules, which protect certain classes of people from discrimination by landlords and others.
And now, though nobody has filed a complaint, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether the “preferred employer” discounts violate fair-housing guidelines.
Spokesman Elliott Bronstein said the issue came up during the agency’s recent work with activists and city leaders to promote fair housing, and that it’s too early to speculate what the office might do if it determines the practice is discriminatory.
Seattle attorney Evan Loeffler, who specializes in landlord-tenant law, said property owners can deny or favor anyone based on factors that do not fall under the protected classes, which include race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity and others.
“I can see why landlords would want to encourage people with high-paying, white-collar jobs to rent their property,” he said. “On its face, I don’t think that discriminates against anything.”
Landlords seek long-term, low-risk tenants, so in attempting to minimize vacancies it could be to their advantage to seek out workers of firms that seem to mostly hire college-educated and financially stable employees, Loeffler said.
But while employment, or working for a specific company, is not a protected class, someone could argue that through “disparate impact” the majority of people receiving the discounts are a part of one of those groups, therefore, having a discriminatory tendency, said Jacob Vigdor, a University of Washington professor of public affairs.
“It’s in a little bit of a gray area,” Vigdor said.
If a landlord argued that the discounts are part of a model to maintain or improve business, the practice likely would be considered legal, he said. But if evidence proved the specials were a marketing scheme to target a specific group, then there’s more potential to show that it’s discriminatory, he said.
Bill Hinkle, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, said of the organization’s more than 5,000 members, none has made known to him that they offer “preferred employer” discounts. He said the association hasn’t taken a position on the issue but is looking into it following recent media attention.
Seattle resident Jeff Reifman, a technology writer and former Microsoft worker, said the cuts in living costs for workers of big tech giants perpetuates the city’s already diminishing diversity.
It’s “just one more slice” of a changing Seattle, he said.