City Council Passes Historic Renter Protection Ordinance

City law now requires landlords to offer housing to the first qualified applicant, among other things.

Good news for tenants: A bill designed to ensure anti-discrimination protections for renters in Seattle passed swiftly and unanimously in City Council this afternoon.

The new law, an outgrowth of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) task force, will now officially ban discrimination against prospective tenants who use alternative forms of income to pay rent, such as social security, disability, child support, or unemployment — an expansion of protections that already exist for tenants who are paying for housing with federal Section 8 vouchers.

According to a 2011 report by Washington Community Action Network, 48 percent of Seattle renters who pay for housing with these forms of income say that “discrimination prevents them from having successful rental applications.” And until now, they had no legal protections against that form of discrimination.

“That is the protected class that we’re talking about creating,” says Councilmember Lisa Herbold, the bill’s sponsor, citing Washington CAN’s data. She adds that despite the law against Section 8 discrimination, in place for 25 years, “we have problems enforcing even that law.”

Despite its illegality, many Section 8 holders, and members of other protected classes including race, national origin, and sexual orientation, have still been denied housing in Seattle. As we reported previously:

During a Seattle Office of Civil Rights briefing on renter income discrimination, director Patricia Lally said that landlord discrimination against federal Section 8 rent vouchers, which has been illegal for more than a quarter-century in Seattle, is still widespread. Last year OCR filed 23 charges against landlords for housing discrimination, according to their website, though they found that far more—as many as two-thirds of the sample of landlords they investigated—showed evidence of discrimination.

“Race and socioeconomic factors must not be used to prevent people form accessing safe, healthy, and affordable housing,” Herbold said in City Council chambers today. “But that is exactly what has been happening.” She noted that both housing discrimination and homelessness disproportionately affects people of color in Seattle and King County.

The bill passed with six amendments, several of which were significant. One amendment — lauded by many who attended the meeting to offer public testimony today — requires that landlords use a first-come, first-served policy with regard to qualified rental applicants; as a result, no landlord will be able to cherry-pick wealthier-seeming applicants, or applicants that he or she has a “good gut feeling” about. That’s designed to eliminate both explicit and implicit bias in tenant selection.

“Those ‘gut instincts’ are the basis of what results in implicit bias,” says Herbold. And a first-in-line policy like this is, to Herbold’s knowledge, the first city law of its kind in the country.

The bill would also outlaw preferred-employer programs, such as landlord-provided discounts or incentives for people who work for Google or Amazon (which Herbold says came to the city’s attention in 2015), and add in a new protection against evictions, requiring landlords who’ve issued 3-day pay-or-vacate notices to accept emergency housing vouchers as payment “as long as those vouchers turn into cash within five days,” Herbold says.

To those landlords who may be reluctant to accept new tenants who can only prove short-term emergency housing assistance as income, Herbold also notes the huge success rate with regard to city-funded housing assistance programs: City data shows that over 80 percent of those who used those services were still in their housing, paying rent, six months after the assistance ended, she says.

Herbold adds that her committee has been working with property owners and other stakeholders, including the Rental Housing Association, throughout the process. “They suggested language for us to include. I’m sure they would rather us not legislate in this area, but they have been very, very helpful.”

The unanimous vote was followed by some quiet applause.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien (himself a landlord, as he’s disclosed) called the ordinance “an impressive piece of legislation.” Councilmember Rob Johnson added that he is “grateful and encouraged.” Council President Bruce Harrell noted that “we talk about some discrimination being unintentional; there is intentional discrimination out there, too” and getting “deep in the weeds like this on these kinds of policies is exactly what we have to do.”

The city will evaluate the effectiveness of the new law at the end of 2018.