Seattle is facing yet another legal battle with landlords.
Property owners and the Rental Housing Association of Washington filed a lawsuit against the city in the King County Superior Court on Tuesday, this time over a new law that prohibited landlords from using criminal background checks to screen prospective tenants.
Council members unanimously approved the Fair Chance Housing ordinance in August. The law was meant to make it easier for those with convictions to find housing by placing restrictions on property owners’ use of criminal background checks.
But property owners suing the city, who are being represented by Ethan Blevins from libertarian law firm Pacific Legal Foundation, argue that the restrictions violate their constitutional free speech and due process rights. They're asking the court to interject and forbid the city from enforcing the ordinance and provide compensation for legal fees.
"Over the last few years, we've seen a barrage of legislative attacks on our industry by the city of Seattle," said William Shadbolt, RHA board president, at a press conference Tuesday. He claimed thousands of small landlords have sold their rental properties as a result. "Making criminals a protected class...makes the city council directly responsible for increasing people's rent."
The complaint argues that the bill violates landlords' free speech right to receive information and rely on it, and due process right because it's implemented in an "unreasonable and unduly oppressed" manner, Blevins said.
Council member Lisa Herbold, whose committee approved the bill, told PubliCola the ordinance doesn't claim to solve inequities of the criminal justice system but strives to make sure those inequities aren't compounded by landlords. Property owners can still screen applicants based on employment, credit scores, income ratios, or prior rental history.
"For a criminal justice system that disproportionately arrests people of color, punishing someone who hasn't been found guilty is a true injustice," she wrote. "For those who have been convicted, the way I see it, you've paid your debt to society if you've served your time."
The law was part of former mayor Ed Murray's action plan, announced in June 2017, and originally came as part of the 2015 Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda recommendations. It barred policies that exclude people who have arrest or conviction records, asking about criminal history, and carrying any kind of “adverse action” based on their records. It also protects tenants from retaliation.
"Our office is currently reviewing the complaint, which we've just received," said Dan Nolte, spokesperson for the city attorney's office. "We believe the ordinance is constitutional and plan to defend it."
Blevins said he expects a summary judgment hearing in the next six months.
Updated 9:32am on May 2, 2018, to include comments from Herbold.