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.”