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'I feel like I'm the bad guy.' Seattle landlords grudgingly comply with new tenant law

caption: Tenant advocates Sarah Stewart (left)  and Gina Owens say they want to prevent bias in the rental process. Landlords say Seattle laws are driving them away.
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Tenant advocates Sarah Stewart (left) and Gina Owens say they want to prevent bias in the rental process. Landlords say Seattle laws are driving them away.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

Marilyn Yim calls herself a "mom and pop" landlord, with a few properties on the rental market.

She and her husband live in a triplex in north Seattle. They have two other units there.

Yim said she recently rented a unit to a multi-generational family because they said another rental had fallen through and they had a looming deadline to find a place.

“I felt really good about being able to extend them the offer to move into our house,” she said. “Yes, it bypassed the other two, probably very well-qualified applicants. But this family had a need that was immediate. They weren’t yet homeless, but they were about to be homeless.”

Yim wouldn't be able to do that today, because the Washington Supreme Court recently upheld Seattle’s “first-in-time” housing law, which requires landlords to accept the first qualified tenant who applies.

Yim said the “first-in-time” law takes away that discretion from landlords. She’s one of the lead plaintiffs challenging the law.

It requires landlords to post their qualifications, track the order in which applications are received, and then accept the first tenant who meets the requirements.

Landlords say they will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. But in the meantime, the law is in effect and landlords say they’re trying to comply.

The state’s Rental Housing Association has offered landlords training. Advocates for tenants say the law is part of a groundswell to help people of color and people with disabilities get more access to housing.

Gina Owens is on the Seattle Renters’ Commission and worked to pass the law.

“Any of these communities where landlords feel you’re going to have an issue with paying your rent, they tend to shrug you off,” she said.

Owens said discretion in the leasing process leaves room for implicit bias around race, disability or source of income.

“I had to deal with landlords who weren’t that happy about renting to me, because my income was Social Security and TANF,” she said, referring to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, money that helps her raise her three grandchildren.

She said with recent legislation, Seattle is trying to level a playing field that has been tilted in favor of landlords.

Landlords with the Rental Housing Association of Washington say they support rules banning discrimination based on a tenant’s source of income.

Sarah Stewart, a volunteer with Washington Community Action Network, said she’s been struggling to find housing for over a year after being evicted.

She said she understands landlord concerns, but standardizing the process should help disadvantaged applicants, so “that everyone gets a fair shot at being able to get housing in this market.”

But West Seattle landlord Ginnie Hance said Seattle has piled on too many additional requirements too quickly.

“It’s becoming very, very difficult to run rental properties in Seattle,” she said. “I feel like I’m the bad guy. I feel like I’m the enemy, and I don’t know why.”

Hance said the new laws have small landlords turning to Airbnb for short-term rentals or to the real estate market to sell their property.

Plaintiff Yim said if Seattle wants affordable housing, the city should support people like her.

“My basement had a teacher in it. We’ve got EMTs living in our house; we’ve got tenants who are in the movie industry; we’ve got somebody who’s a ballet teacher,” she said. “These are the kind of people that we want living in the city. But if our housing goes away, they’re not going to be able to afford that anymore.”

Seattle landlords are also prohibited from conducting criminal background checks for most tenants, a law which also faces a legal challenge.

Landlords say these new laws could bring unintended consequences.

Landlords may now ask for higher credit scores, they said, and the “first-in-time” process could favor people with the time and money to jump on new listings. But advocates for tenants say the law is replacing a process that was not transparent for applicants.

The lawsuit against the “first-in-time” law was filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Its attorneys say they will petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review it; the deadline for that petition is next February.

Attorney Brian Hodges said Seattle held off enforcing the law until the state supreme court verdict, but now landlords should work to comply.

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