The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge to Seattle’s first-come, first-served law for renters, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. It means the policy adopted almost four years ago will stand for the foreseeable future.
Passed by the City Council in 2016, the pioneering Seattle law requires landlords to publicize their criteria for prospective renters and to accept the first qualified applicant.
The law was written, proponents say, to help ensure equal treatment among prospective renters. When landlords are allowed to choose among multiple qualified applicants, their conscious and unconscious biases might come into play, opening the door to discrimination against people of color, people with disabilities and others, the supporters say.
Multiple landlords sued Seattle over the first-come, first-served law in 2017. Represented by the libertarian-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation, they claimed the law was restricting their ability to choose their tenants and was violating their constitutional rights. They also said the law could stop them from selecting needy tenants and could inadvertently advantage people with the time and wherewithal to jump on rental listings quickly (such as people with flexible work schedules, internet-equipped cellphones and cars).
A King County Superior Court judge sided with the landlords in 2018, describing the ability to pick among qualified applicants as “a fundamental attribute of property ownership,” and the Seattle Office of Civil Rights stopped enforcing the law.
Then the state Supreme Court heard the case and last year upheld the law, reversing the King County ruling. Though the law is “unquestionably an experiment,” and though “there is room for substantial debate about whether such an experiment is likely to succeed,” the policy is allowed under Washington’s Constitution, Justice Mary Yu wrote in a unanimous opinion.
In January, the landlords petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, and the court denied the petition Monday, without comment.
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold championed the policy in 2016. In a statement hailing the news, she said the first-come, first-served law was “a necessary tool” to guard against discrimination and even more important now that the city’s existing housing crisis has been “compounded by an economic crisis” because of the coronavirus.
The denial by the highest court in the land means the case has now run its course, City Attorney Pete Holmes added.
“This decision isn’t surprising, considering the dispute centered on an interpretation of state law that mirrored long-established federal law,” Holmes said. “Petitioners only get one bite at the apple, which means there’s no second opportunity to have their case heard.”
In an email Monday, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Ethan Blevins said Seattle’s law has caused some landlords to sell their units and others to tighten their rental criteria. “The city’s victory in the courts, unfortunately, will not translate into a victory for either landlords or tenants,” Blevins wrote.
Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court denial is the second in under a month of a case brought against Seattle by property owners and the Pacific Legal Foundation. Three weeks ago, the court declined to hear a challenge of the city’s “democracy vouchers” campaign-finance program.