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Landlord gut check: Can Seattle regulate bias?

According to a UW report, 40 percent of landlords are selling or planning to sell their properties due to what they see as restrictive rental rules. (Unsplash/Brandon Griggs)

Seattle’s controversial landlord law is currently being challenged in a King County court where plaintiffs argue they should be able to use their gut when choosing potential tenants.

“They argued on Friday, ‘This is not fair. We should not be prevented from using our gut; a gut instinct to rent to this person and not that person,’” Tom Tangney said. “The idea is that ‘it’s my property and I should do what I want.’ Do you have a right to exclude someone who is qualified? The city’s argument is ‘no.'”

“Just like we have laws that prevent discrimination against racial or ethnic bias,” he said. “It’s not assuming everybody is going to be racist or biased. But the idea is that it is a protection.”

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Seattle landlords are required to rent to the first qualified tenant. But landlords argue that just because someone looks good on paper or a background check, doesn’t mean they will be good renters. Seattle’s law, however, is meant to get around implicit, or unconscious, bias; so that landlords won’t discriminate against renters.

The Stranger reports that the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Conservative group, has brought the lawsuit against the City of Seattle. The judge hearing the case, Suzanne Parisien, is a landlord herself. The newspaper notes that this may have influenced her questioning on Friday. Parisien reportedly said:

What the plaintiffs want is a right to choose. They want to be able to have their gut check that we use all the time in the real world … Every day we’re making a million choices based on how somebody makes you feel.

Landlord laws

But KIRO Radio’s John Curley says that this case is really about Seattle’s negative perspective of landlords.

“The city council in Seattle has a real problem with landlords,” Curley said. “They assume the landlord is racist. So they eliminate the landlord’s innate bias. They say, ‘Just take the first one that comes along.’”

“Now it’s a feel-good law, because show me the administrative muscle that will enforce this,” he said. “Somebody comes in at 9 a.m. and puts in an application and somebody comes in at 10 a.m. I assume they are time stamping these so we know which one was first and which one is second … so does the city spend money to have somebody go out and enforce the time stamping? No. It’s a great law on paper; it’s not enforced. It makes everyone feel good.”

Curley points out that there is a reason landlords are wary of people they rent to.

“I asked a friend of mine involved with apartment buildings, he told me that, on average, if you own a big apartment building – 100 units or whatever – you are making about 5-6 percent on the rent,” Curley said. “If you own a duplex or smaller apartment units, you are making 10 percent on rent. So if somebody is paying $2,000, the landlord is making $200.”

But if a renter ends up stiffing the landlord, or destroying an apartment, that can be costly to a landlord.

“On average, it cost about $5,000 to get somebody out,” Curely said. “So if you make $200 a month, but it cost you $5,000 to get somebody out, that is a loss you will not make up for about three years. That is why landlords are so cautious as to who they let in. That’s why they do gut checks. That’s why they do background checks. They want to make sure that whoever is coming in there is going to pay that rent every single month and not destroy their property.”

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