Smug Seattle to mom and pop landlords: Criminals are welcome! Your rights not so much

My landlord is a dying breed. He’s a middle-class guy who owns and rents out the tiny house we live in, built in the 1950s on the other side of the lake from Seattle. That house is his retirement plan.

When he comes to repair the stuff our kids break, he always asks about the latest with Seattle’s housing regulations. He asks because I’m an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest group that has sued Seattle over several of its housing ordinances. He’s terrified the misguided policies infecting Seattle’s housing market will spread across the lake. If that happens, my landlord would likely sell, as many Seattle landlords are doing now.

A few months ago, he fixed the toilet seat lid—which I broke this time—and stayed for a plate of spaghetti. We talked about two of Seattle’s recent housing laws we’re challenging in court: the first-in-time rule and the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance.

First-in-time, the only ordinance of its kind in the country, required landlords to offer tenancy to the first applicant who meets rental criteria—credit history and such. We defeated that law in court in April. The Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, on the other hand, forbids landlords from checking criminal background or considering prior criminal convictions when selecting tenants.

Each of these laws by itself curtails landlords’ rights to their own property and raises serious safety and financial risks. But in tandem, the two rules make the risks of renting out property utterly intolerable for the average mom-and-pop landlord.

Two of my clients, MariLyn and Chong Yim, are raising their young family in one unit of a triplex they own. They have close relationships with their tenants/neighbors and share the yard. 

Confidence in one’s good intentions is not a license to sacrifice property owners’ constitutional rights to make their own decisions about whom they share their property with.

Let’s say MariLyn meets the first person to apply for a vacant unit in her triplex. The applicant checks out on paper, but she’s disturbed to see his skin is littered with swastikas and prison tattoos.

Under the first-in-time rule, she would have had to offer him the unit. Happily, she can use her own judgment now to say no to someone who makes her feel unsafe, thanks to our court victory last year. But still, under the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, she can’t check someone’s criminal history to hunt for less obvious red flags. So far as she knows, she could be blindly renting the unit next door to her family to someone with a past murder conviction.

MariLyn, her family, and her other tenants simply become collateral damage in Seattle’s blind, self-congratulatory march to social justice. I understand why my landlord frets while he eats spaghetti at our dinner table.

The results of these laws are easy to predict. Small-time landlords like the Yims will respond in one of two ways: they’ll either try to filter out bad eggs by jacking up rent and toughening rental criteria, or they’ll just sell. Neither are desirable outcomes, but it already appears that many landlords are taking the second option. They simply can’t stomach trying to do business in such a toxic legal environment.

The great irony is this: the only entities capable of surviving as landlords in Seattle’s regulatory climate will be the large corporate residential leasing companies. They alone can endure in these mandates because they have the capital reserves and the sophistication to navigate the perils of renting out property in Seattle. If the Yims wind up with a bad tenant, they may well be years in the hole trying to recover. A housing and property management company, however, can spread the risk across a larger number of rental units. This is the bitter harvest of laws passed by the same city council that rails against big money in politics, that touts small business, and that decries corporate greed.

Mom-and-pop landlords are a boon to a community. They tend to offer lower rents. They can be more understanding when the rent check is late or your kid tears the towel rack from the bathroom wall. And they might sit down to dinner with you. But Seattle—if it has its way—will usher in more corporate property managers whose token personal touch might stretch as far as a bowlful of joyless candies at the reception desk.

Certainly, city leaders regard their attempt to help the marginalized as virtuous. And we should all want to help ex-offenders move on from their troubled pasts. And sure, rental practices should be fair and non-discriminatory. But confidence in one’s good intentions is not a license to sacrifice property owners’ constitutional rights to make their own decisions about whom they share their property with.

Pacific Legal Foundation’s lawsuits might yet save Seattle’s housing market from its false friends. But if Seattle continues on this trajectory, the city’s many tenants will be handing over a larger rent check, and they won’t be eating spaghetti with mom and pop.

Ethan Blevins is a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a non-profit organization that litigates for individual rights and economic liberty.