Seattle approves ordinance to stop landlords from using criminal records to screen tenants

The Seattle City Council voted  8 to 0 to prohibit landlords from using criminal records to screen prospective tenants. The only exception to the new ordinance are sex offenders. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - The Seattle City Council voted 8 to 0 to prohibit landlords from using criminal records to screen prospective tenants. The only exception to the new ordinance are sex offenders.

City leaders and supporters of the measure; 'Fair Chance Housing Ordinance' insist its goal is to reduce housing discrimination and barriers.

Inside Seattle Council Chambers there was overwhelming support for a measure.

In short, it will restrict how landlords can use arrest and conviction records to exclude prospective renters. Seattle landlords will no longer be able to ask about criminal records, pending charges, juvenile records or any arrest record when choosing tenants.

The measure states the only exception are sex offenders and in those cases the landlord must have a legitimate reason to deny an applicant.

Council member Sally Bagshaw told KOMO News prior to the vote that she planned to vote yes because housing is an essential right to everyone and she hoped the measure will be an extra tool in the toolbox to help deal with the city's homeless crisis.

Prior to the vote the only public comment came from a handful of proponents who praised council for what they called "progressive law" and thanked them for their compassion and grasp of the issue.

The Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHAWA) opposes the law, but its External Affairs Director Sean Martin said the Association saw no point in attending Monday's meeting after it passed in Council Committee 6 to 0.

"We knew it was going to be approved today," said Martin, who added the RHAWA will review the decision and consider its options, including a legal review.

Among the supporters who applauded and cheered when the vote was tallied were citizens who used the public comment period to tell their personal stories.

Including a few people who said their criminal records continue to follow them into the community - even years later, which at times has made it nearly impossible to put a roof over their heads.

"I still receive the message that I don't belong in the community," Seattle resident Rusty Thomas told the council.

He said he was formerly incarcerated and despite serving his time, going to college and getting a degree in psychology, he still gets discriminated against for his conviction.

"I'm still being told you can't live here we don't trust you no matter how much work I put in," said Thomas.

Seattle's Susan Mason said it happens to her too and she's been out of the system for 14 years.

"We have given so much power to landlords to re-convict me," said Mason.

She told councilmembers that she served time behind bars, met her probation requirements and paid her fines, but insisted she's still paying every time she attempts to move to a new address.

"What we are talking about is discrimination, period. Just this idea I have to plea to a private citizen even though I did my time," said Mason.

"A lot of our people are concerned about the liability component," said RHAWA'S Martin, "There's a lot of concern."

The RHAWA, whose majority of members have smaller units - about 10 or less, said the measure is poor policy and will put landlords and other tenants at risk by turning a blind eye to most criminal records.

"The big concern is landlords feel pain on this, we are closing doors in access to tenants," said Martin.

He insisted all landlords want the same thing: good tenants, and said the law will make it harder to assess risks.

He thinks some landlords will opt out of the rental business, possibly shrinking the city's rental market inventory.

The city plans to offer educational programs to help landlords with the new measure.

"What we know, and as my work as a prosecuting attorney, if someone leaves prison and doesn't have housing and a job, they're doomed by a spin cycle to be back out on the streets again," said Bagshaw.

The Mayor is expected to sign the ordinance into law. It would take effect sometime next year.

Landlords who rent out their own homes or rent a room would be exempt.

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