On the Front Lines of Who Gets to Rent


Quarrels over the rights of property owners vs equitable access for renters have come home to the First Hill building where I live.

In our condo building there’s a debate over rentals — should we allow more of them or remain mostly a building of owners who live here? That question is part of a much wider debate over rental access.

Back in 2017, the City of Seattle passed a fair housing law prohibiting landlords from checking to see if potential tenants had a criminal history. The law prevented landlords from denying tenants based on that history, however obtained.

The reasons for changing the old practice were clear enough: those with criminal histories were far more likely to be rejected as tenants. Statistics at the time showed that Blacks with criminal histories had a harder time renting and often wound up in the streets homeless. One court called it “a prison-to-homelessness pipeline.” Seattle’s hope was to take criminal history out of consideration for rental access.

Landlords, individually and through the Rental Housing Association of Washington appealed, arguing that they had a right not only to inquire about criminal histories but also to exclude prospective tenants based on that information. They lost in district court but won a confusing split decision in the 9th Circuit.

The circuit court ruling said, in short, that of course landlords could inquire about criminal history, but the 9th Circuit also said, in a decision last March, that criminal records could not be used to deny tenancy. Put another way, the judges said the right to use personal property as one wishes is not a fundamental right.

So the split decision, in effect, means that landlords can inquire about criminal backgrounds, but may not act on them to deny prospective tenants. (They can still go to credit check information and use that in deciding tenancy.) That’s today’s law, but the case is likely to move on to the Supreme Court for a final ruling, though the timing is unknown.

In all of this, still unsettled with finality, one quote jumps out from a Seattle couple owning three apartment units, now renting two of them: “Seattle’s decision to place the burden of housing the most violent and dangerous ex-convicts on private owners violates due process.”

Mike James
Mike James
Mike James was a long-time anchor newscaster at KING TV.


  1. When we returned to PNW after 7 years in Kauai we were looking for an apartment. We were stunned at the amount of background information demanded by prospective landlords. We had owned our homes for some 30 years here, leased a condo in Kauai with a simple credit check and first and last month’s rent (no charge for the credit check). Here, rental managers demand an upfront, non-refundable fee to pay for credit checks AND criminal background checks that, by law, cannot exclude one from consideration. The fees can run anywhere from $50 to $100 per person. Yes, per person, even if the renters have been married for 57 years and have an identical credit profile, as in the case of us. They always claim that the entire fee is only for the manager’s cost of the backgrounding. Balderdash. It’s just another way of lining the pockets of the middlepersons. And the next apartment manager you talk to won’t accept the credit check done be a previous rental operator. You have pay all over again. I’ve heard stories of people having to pay several hundreds of dollars in background check fees to finally land in a place they like and, also, with managers who will accept them. It is a racket, I tell you.

    • This is a direct result of hasty, one-sided “pro tenant” laws passed by recent city council members like Sawant, Herbold, Morales, Gonzalez, Mosqueda, etc. Many unintended consequences, as the risks and complexities and regulatory instability of operating rental housing in Seattle have skyrocketed.

  2. As a small landlord, I was excited when I saw your headline and opening paragraphs, but then the article doesn’t really delve into anything. Lots more to explore re: Seattle’s losses of small rental housing inventory and the many opportunities Seattleites are forgoing because of the greatly changed regulatory/political landscape. Not to mention so many unintended impacts for applicants/tenants (like greatly increased application criteria, far more stringent background checks, less flexibility on lease terms, higher rents, etc). Maybe you or someone would do a follow-up on whether condo boards are coming to realize the greatly expanded risks of rentals in Seattle (due to changes in eviction law, roommate law, and so much more) and whether anyone in city government is starting to focus on trying to turn things around — to lessen risk/cost/complexity of being a small rental operator and encourage more small property owners to rent housing to other Seattleites, not fewer.

    • Good thoughts re next steps. Yes, there’s far more depth to the Seattle rentals story – the intent here was simply to outline the status of existing law, itself confusing at best in allowing probing criminal background checks but disallowing their use to deny tenancy.

      • Seattle’s Fair Chance is a confusing law (redundantly oppressive, given that state and federal law cover this area more fairly) and it feels like an affront to my own civil rights as an independent female rental owner/operator, e.g., who wants to go in the basement of a male tenant’s rental home at night to check on an errant furnace if they have a recent criminal background you’re unsure of? and if they are allowed by Seattle’s wildly written Roommate Law to bring in anyone they want as “family” and add them as a long-term occupant with no background check at all? Which duplex/triplex or apartment occupants, especially those with kids, want their landlord moving someone with any possible criminal background in right next door? There are better ways to help criminals get matched with and stabilize in appropriate housing. Seattle should revert to state/federal laws and work on positive, targeted methods for helping people.

        Anyway, thanks for writing on the topic. There’s so much more that could be covered re: the Pandora’s box of Seattle’s onslaught of new rental laws and their many overlapping negative impacts. A few small landlords I know listen in on King County eviction court and it is a hot mess — moving slower than molasses due to the sludge of poorly written new laws and unrestrained, publicly funded “free counsel” for tenants of any/all incomes. Scammers have quickly caught on and there are truly egregious things unfolding on the backs of mom-n-pops, and impacting the safety, cost and viability of all scales of rental housing (especially affordable housing, both for-profit and non-profit).

        I hope investigative journalists eventually catch on to the important trends unfolding and spotlight it for the public and legislative leaders. Seattle Grassroots Landlords is one source for hearing first-person anecdotes and specific concerns, if any reporters are interested.

  3. On renting your condo out – ages ago, the story I heard from an owner, was that he couldn’t sell his unit and move to Portland, because too many units in his building were rented, and that prevented prospective buyers from getting the loan they’d need. Of course it’s a terrible predicament, because the only alternative for him and others in the same position, is to rent their units when they leave, thus digging the hole deeper. Maybe banks are more understanding today.


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