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How Seattle landlord laws upheld by SCOWA could harm small landowners


The Seattle landlord laws upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court this week would make it illegal to deny an apartment to a convicted rapist based on criminal history, according to Jim Burling, vice president of legal affairs at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented the plaintiffs.

In Yim v. City of Seattle, the court upheld the 2016 law that requires Seattle landlords to rent to the first financially-qualified person who applies, as well as the 2018 law that forbids landlords from using potential renters’ criminal histories to deny an apartment to them.

“We were not anticipating the breathtaking nature that the Supreme Court in Washington state blew away 100 years of precedent in one case — 30 years’ worth of property rights cases, they simply tossed those into the air and got rid of them,” he said on KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show.

The law is burdensome for small-time landlords who may just own a couple of properties, according to the plaintiffs.

Dori: Seattle landlord law removes reasonable subjectivity

“Just because somebody might have the income, they may be somebody who just bothers you, just rubs you the wrong way, and not because of color or race or anything like that … Especially if you’re a small landowner, you want these people you’ll have an intimate relationship with as being your neighbor and a landlord for many years to come, you really want the ability of screening people, and to make sure that the tenants are the right fit for you, and the right fit for the other tenants you may have,” Burling said.

The end result, he said, is that large corporations will take over Seattle apartments because they are the ones with the resources to deal with tenant problems, and are not the types of landlords to live alongside tenants.

The other result of the landlord laws is that smaller landowners might raise application fees as another kind of filter, cutting out people struggling to get by in an expensive city.

“By essentially treating landlords as if they are city employees and the property that they are managing, their own property, as if it is, essentially, in some way imbued with city ownership, the city is going to be doing more harm than good,” Burling said.

Federal and state law prevent discriminating to renters based on factors like race and religion. Burling agrees that this should remain forbidden.

“Nobody is arguing that you have the right to do that, and anybody caught [doing] that kind of discrimination is going to be subject to the law,” he said. “But there are a million other factors that go into deciding who you are going to rent to.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation plans to take the case to the federal level, appealing the decision with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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