Seattle's Fair Chance Housing Act, Two Years On
How the FCH affects you today as a tenant or landlord
By Levio Poletti
In the summer of 2017, Seattle became the first city in the nation to pass a law that prohibits landlords from using criminal records in their assessment of applications for rental housing. Dubbed as the Fair Chance Housing (FCH) Act, the law was eventually put into effect in February of 2018. The City Council’s unanimous approval of the ordinance was motivated in large part by their desire to crack down on unfair discrimination against ex-offenders who are searching for housing. While we have yet to experience the long-term effects of the law, concerns are still being raised over the far reach of this progressive legislation. The potential benefits – and possible unforeseen ramifications – of the FCH are worth drawing our attention to.
The origin of FCH dates back to September of 2014, with the founding of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. HALA is a report with 65 recommendations for fixing Seattle’s housing crisis and was published by the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee. Backed by Seattle’s former mayor Ed Murray and the City Council, the committee published HALA with the ambition of strengthening legal protections for renters, and was mainly predicated on its Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) recommendation. MHA would “for the first time ever, require new multifamily and commercial development to contribute to affordable housing and increase development capacity wherever requirements were imposed.” (NLC). The ambition of this recommendation was to achieve the goal of creating 6,000 rent/income-restricted homes over a period of 10 years. MHA was designed to operate in conjunction with the creation of more housing options to meet Seattle’s growing population.
The Fair Chance Housing Act followed in the wake of the MHA. FCH is the city’s legislation for “increasing access to Housing for People with a Criminal History” (Seattle.gov). In the brief span of time that has followed this laws implementation last year, debate has continued to grow abound between City Council advocates and Seattle Landlords who are being represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation.
Landlords are protesting the FCH on a number of grounds. First, they claim that their free speech and property rights are being unjustly revoked, and that their personal safety is being potentially jeopardized. Free speech is being revoked in the form of not being able to publicly deny a rental candidate based on their history, and property rights are being revoked by virtue of the landlords being restricted in the manner by which they desire to rent out their property (that manner being whom they desire to rent out to). Additionally, the law means that landlords cannot assess a potential candidates criminal record in any way, regardless of how severe the offence was. Pacific Legal argues that this restriction poses as a risk not just to the landlord, but to the landlords other tenants as well. Under the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance Frequently Asked Questions page, the Office for Civil Rights tells us that the closest thing a landlord can do to running a criminal background check is screen the prospective renter to see if they show up on any registries. The only registry that is specifically mentioned as acceptable for review is the sex offender registry; even then, a landlord cannot reject an applicant based on their registry status unless there is a “legitimate business reason for doing so” (Seattle Office for Civil Rights).
A 2018 study conducted by the University of Washington on Seattle rental housing revealed that “40 percent of landlords have sold or are planning to sell their properties as a result of the new rental rules” (Jason Rantz, 770KTTH). The possibility of fewer housing opportunities arising from the implementation of HALA recommendations seemed to go unnoticed by both the former mayor’s office and the City Council. Still, Seattle Office of Civil Rights advocates are maintaining that the FCH ordinance is worth whatever potential drawbacks it may have, seeing as how it is designed to safeguard prospective applicants from unfair discrimination from landlords.
What this means for you as a Tenant
If you are a prospective tenant with a criminal background who meets the landlord’s application requirements, then the Fair Chance Housing Act will likely help you to secure an apartment, condo, townhouse, or home that is available for rent. The degree to which you will be helped may increase in direct proportion to the severity of your previous offense; landlords who are willing to dismiss petty theft could have been less willing to dismiss arson or assault. Because your history is unaccounted for in the application, the landlord will not be able to tell you from someone who has never committed an offense. At the same time, a previous minor offense will not unfairly impede your chances, since landlords can no longer treat minor offenses as though they are indistinguishable from major offenses under their shared title of “Criminal History”. Likewise, if you have committed a serious offense, but have since proceeded to put your life together, then the FCH will protect you from unfair discrimination that you would have otherwise likely faced.
If you are a prospective tenant with no history of criminal activity, then the FCH may theoretically hurt your chances at securing a new unit. Because the applicant pool has now increased by an unknown extent, you are potentially vying for a new apartment that is being pursued by a greater number of qualified applicants whose criminal histories are now considered irrelevant to the deliberation process.
If you are a tenant who currently occupies a unit in an apartment, then it would do you well to know that your new neighbors’ criminal histories are now unknown to both you and your landlord. You can inquire with your landlord as to if the newcomer is registered on the sex offender list (or possibly any other unspecified registry), but you may or may not find out about anything else.
What this means for you as a Landlord
If you are a landlord, then the FCH will bar you from investigating an applicant’s criminal background history. You will only be able to screen the applicant for some registries that they may show up in (which registries you can screen for is not specified, save for the sex offender registry). Furthermore, you will not be allowed to deny an applicant for any offense they have committed. An ex-offender’s application may be rejected only if the landlord identifies valid business concerns within the prospective renter's application.
Furthermore, the “first-in-line” ordinance requires you to assess applications in the order that you receive them; if you suspect an applicant of having a criminal history, then you cannot reposition their application before or after any of the other applications you have received.
Theoretically, the FCH could help you to more easily find a prospective renter who meets your application’s requirements, since you are not allowed to immediately dismiss an ex-convict applicant who has perhaps, unknown to you, proceeded to put their life back together.
The tangible positive effects of the FCH’s implementation, if there currently are any, have gone largely unreported. The most significant short-term negative ramification of the ordinance is the large percentage of landlords who have decided to sell their properties. The considerable number of variables at play cloud this legislation’s long-term advantages and disadvantages in a veil that is hard for any of us to see through at the moment.
Note: This article was edited on December 4 to delete a repetitive use of a quote made by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights.