The Seattle City Council approved an ordinance banning discrimination against renters with non-wage sources of income, such as Social Security benefits, and requiring landlords to provide housing to qualified renters on a first come, first served basis.
The Seattle City Council approved an ordinance Monday banning discrimination by landlords against renters with alternative sources of income, such as Social Security benefits, veteran’s benefits, unemployment insurance, child-support payments and other assistance programs.
The ordinance also will require landlords to review applications one at a time, then pick the first renter who meets their screening criteria.
And it will prohibit landlords from offering special discounts to renters who work for particular companies.
Plus, it will require landlords to accept pledges from community-based organizations to bail out renters on the verge of being evicted, so long as the money is received within five days.
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“Our city is a city of renters. Their interests must be protected if we intend to reduce the number of people living homeless and increase affordable housing opportunities,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s civil rights committee.
More than half of Seattle’s housing units are rentals and nearly half of the city’s residents are renters.
Renters with federal Section 8 vouchers have long been protected from discrimination in Seattle.
But Mayor Ed Murray asked the council in April to extend that status to people with other verifiable, non-wage sources of income, including subsidies helping people move out of homelessness and stave off eviction.
The change was one of 65 recommendations made last year by Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory committee.
Herbold added the first-come, first-served measure and the prohibition on deals for employees at certain companies.
She cited recent sting operations by the Seattle Office of Civil Rights (SOCR) as evidence that landlords are shutting out people with alternative sources of income, even when they can afford the rent.
Even though discrimination against people with Section 8 vouchers already is illegal, nearly two-thirds of landlords treated people posing as prospective renters differently based on whether they had Section 8 vouchers.
When the Washington Community Action Network recently surveyed renters, nearly half of those relying on Social Security benefits to pay for housing reported discrimination, Herbold also noted.
Protecting people with alternative sources of income will especially help mothers, people experiencing homelessness and people of color, proponents of Monday’s ordinance told the council. Landlords sometimes use source of income criteria as a backdoor way to discriminate based on race, the proponents said.
Herbold said the first-come, first-served measure will “level the playing field” by stopping landlords from picking the renters they like best among qualified applicants.
The measure will require landlords to disclose screening criteria with their listings and keep track of the date and time they receive each application.
There won’t be any sure way for a renter to know on his or her own whether he or she has been illegally skipped over, Herbold acknowledged. But a renter who suspects wrongdoing will be able to ask the SOCR to investigate a landlord’s records.
The SOCR may conduct sting operations after a yearlong education and outreach period, Herbold said.
Landlord groups pushed back Monday, describing the first-come, first-served measure as overly complicated and warning it could have an unintended consequence.
By making the application process a race, the city will give renters with easy access to the internet and to transportation an unfair advantage, said Brett Waller, deputy director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association.
To address that concern, Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Rob Johnson sponsored an amendment calling for an audit in 2018.
In supporting the amendment, which passed, Councilmember Debra Juarez suggested that a lottery might be more fair than first-come, first-served.
The question of discounts for the employees of companies such as Microsoft bubbled up last year after activists questioned the practice.
In April, the SOCR issued new guidelines and vowed to investigate complaints about the so-called “preferred-employer” programs, saying they could constitute discrimination if shown to disparately harm a group covered by civil-rights protections.
Monday’s ordinance goes a step further by outlawing preferred-employer programs, with some minor exceptions.