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Attorney: Seattle landlord ordinances violate constitutional property rights

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Seattle landlords are trying to fight a controversial set of laws that’s supposed to tackle their allegedly discriminatory worldviews. The landlord ordinances say landlords can’t check criminal histories of applicants trying to live on their property, and forces them to rent to the first qualified person who applies.

There are some constitutional problems with both of those standards, and it’s being challenged right now in the state Supreme Court by the Pacific Legal Foundation, who represent the landlords. Attorney Brian Hodges joined the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH to discuss the cases ramifications.

“We won the first round of this case at the King County Superior Court last year, when a trial court judge found on six independent bases that Seattle’s first in time rule — the rule that says that a landlord has to rent their property or has to give a right of refusal to the very first person in time to apply — violated the Constitution on six separate grounds,” he said.

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“The Supreme Court argument yesterday was part of the city’s appeal from that decision, and the city is not challenging the trial court’s conclusions. What it’s doing is asking our Supreme Court to reverse decades, if not a century of both Washington and U.S. Supreme Court case law in order to pave the way for the city to just outright deny landlords of their constitutionally protected rights to property and speech, in order to pave the way for more regulation.”

The landlord ordinances were part of several new rules passed by the Seattle City Council, which also included expanded source-of-income protections and restrictions on the size of security deposits.

Last year a University of Washington study on Seattle rental housing found that 40 percent of landlords have sold or are planning to sell their properties as a result of the new rental rules. The RHAWA and Pacific Legal Foundation subsequently launched a lawsuit against the City of Seattle alleging that the law banning rental denial based on criminal records is unconstitutional.

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“In regard to the constitutional right it takes what’s called a ‘right of first refusal’ and gives it to the first qualified applicants. A right of first refusal has been recognized by the Washington Supreme Court to be a valuable property right,” he said. “The rule also disturbs the right to choose to whom you’re going to rent your property. And that also has been recognized by both Washington courts and the U.S. Supreme Court as one of the essential attributes of property ownership.”

Seattle landlords can’t even check for serious crimes

With the rule preventing landlords from checking criminal histories, the argument from the city is that landlords would be discriminating against people who have a criminal history since they’ve already done their time and are out of prison. But Hodges says this places an unfair burden on landlords.

“Instead of providing more transitional housing — which is what the reports they’re relying on say is necessary to help fight the recidivism rates — they decided just to put that burden on private landlords by stripping them of the ability to check even for the most heinous crimes,” he said.

“You cannot screen a murderer from your property, an arsonist, crimes that really there is a legitimate reason for not wanting to rent an apartment to somebody who has a history of repeated serious criminal offenses.”

In any case, Hodges is confident that the ordinances will not stand up in court against constitutional laws.

“I believe that the U.S. Supreme Court actually stands in the way. All of these issues have been determined by the U.S. Supreme Court and the case law should be binding,” he said. “Our cases include both state and federal claims or claims that rely on the U.S. Supreme Court case law. So it would be very difficult for the Washington Supreme Court to disagree with with binding case law.”

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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