Seattle's "First-in-Line" Law Upheld by Washington State Supreme Court
What this means for you
By Levio Poletti
On Thursday, November 14, Washington State’s Supreme Court upheld Seattle’s first-come, first-served law for renters. Landlords were claiming that the law, which took into effect in 2016, was unfairly taking private property, and that it was violating their rights to due-process and free speech under Washington’s constitution. Last year, a King Country judge made a decision to take down the first-come, first-served law. On the 14th, this decision was reversed by the court unanimously, meaning that the law is taken back into effect.
The rule, dubbed as the “first-in-line” law, mandates that landlords are required to:
- Publicize their criteria for how they select among prospective renters.
- Assess each potential renter’s application one at a time and pick the first one that meets all of the landlord’s legal requirements.
- Avoid preferential treatment for prospective tenants whose income is not predicated (even in part) on alternative sources of income.
The requirements listed by the landlord are created exclusively by the landlord, and can include “a minimum credit score or income, or requirements around rental history or even things like ‘applicant removed shoes while visiting unit.’” (Eilis O’Neill, KUOW) The elimination of the landlords’ former ability to choose among a host of satisfactory tenants is designed to curb both conscious and unconscious biases that could unfairly affect the tenant selection process. Particularly, this law is designed to circumvent the problem of landlord discrimination against potential tenants who receive some or all of their income from alternative sources, such as Social Security aid, unemployment benefits, and more.
Lawyers from the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of a collective of critical landlords, contested the law as being unconstitutional by citing the landlords’ right to do what they want with their property. Additionally, these landlords are claiming that their rights to free speech are being violated. Speaking on behalf of Washington’s Supreme Court, Justice May Yu responded by stating that the law is, while experimental in nature, only requiring landlords to publicize their criteria for their tenant selection processes, and not discriminate unfairly on account of income sources. (Daniel Beekman, the Seattle Times). Though there is no guarantee that this crack down on income-based discrimination will successfully provide prospective renters with more equal opportunity access to housing, the supreme court deemed the laws potential risks worth the potential gain to be had from its goal of equalizing the playing field.
What "first-in-line" means for you as a prospective renter
If you are currently a prospective renter, then you must know that your application will now be reviewed in order of when it was received by the landlord. Assuming that you satisfy the landlords publicly listed requirements, this means that you have a better chance of receiving housing if you submit your application soon after the unit is made available for rent.
At the same time, you are no longer able to utilize a direct relationship with the landlord in order to acquire housing from them. Because the landlord is required to assess each application purely in the order of when they received the application, they cannot move yours up or down the list; it is going to be read in the order that it was received. This holds, even if they know you to be a reliable tenant. Theoretically, this system could be curbed by the landlord deciding to communicate with you about when to release the application for their unit, so that you submit yours sooner than anyone else. In this case, the landlord could theoretically circumvent the “first-in-line” restriction of the law; critics of the law have raised this possibility as one of the rule’s potential weaknesses.
While you may receive less discrimination on grounds of your alternative sources of income (if you have any), you may receive more unintended discrimination on grounds of your ability to submit your application early on. Ethan Blevins, one of the landlords’ lawyers, argued that the law would discriminate in favor of individuals who have the luxury of being able to submit their applications in the soonest. This could mean that the renter who is most likely to be chosen will be the one who does not need to work multiple shifts, who can afford a car for transportation, or who has internet access in their current home. If you are bound by any life-circumstances that would not allow you to submit your application early on, then the law may make it harder for you to find new housing.
However, if you have ever been at the receiving end of income-based landlord discrimination in the past, then the payoff may be worth it. Recent sting operations run by the Seattle Office of Civil Rights (SOCR) have revealed evidence of landlords discriminating against prospective renters based on their sources of income, even when they can afford to pay the rent. If you, say, receive Section 8 vouchers, and can afford the rent of a unit, then you can now rely on this new law to make sure that you are not discriminated against.
Seattle’s “first-in-line” law is believed to the first of its kind in the country. Time will tell if this early law will ultimately be in your best interest as a prospective renter.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courts_of_Washington_(state)