Court Revives Seattle’s First-In-Time Ordinance

by Chris on November 18, 2019

Seattle’s controversial “first-in-time” ordinance, requiring landlords to accept the first qualified renter, has been reinstated by Washington’s Supreme Court.

Previously, a lower court had ruled that the ordinance violates landlords’ constitutional rights by denying them the ability to rent to the tenants of their choice.

The first-in-time ordinance requires landlords to provide tenants with a list of minimum qualifications, process applications in the order received, and then offer the unit to the first qualified renter.

The law also provides for waiting periods which could slow the leasing process. For instance, the applicant must be allowed time to complete the application. If sufficient information is not provided, the tenant must be allowed additional time to comply. Then, the tenant has 48 hours to decide whether to accept the offer to rent.

Only after an applicant declines the offer or the waiting periods run can the landlord move on to the next prospect. The ordinance leaves open the possibility that the same applicant might tie up multiple rentals while deciding which one to take, placing other applicants on hold.

The Washington Supreme Court held that the constitutional challenges to the city’s rental ordinance only could succeed if a property owner suffered a
permanent physical invasion of the property that completely deprived them of all economic benefit, or where the ordinance failed to serve any legitimate governmental objective. The court goes on to say that it is not ruling on whether the ordinance is good policy or if the city’s objective — to curb discrimination — will be met.

Some tenant advocates fear that the Seattle ordinance will have the opposite impact. In practice, the applicant who arrives first to claim a vacancy is the one who has smartphone service, internet access during the workday, flexible hours, and private transportation. In that sense, the first-in-time measure does more to reinforce the advantage of well-off tenants than it does to support vulnerable populations who lack those resources.

In fact, many landlords already apply a first-in-time strategy, but with the ability to use discretion is some cases, like where another applicant is available for a longer-term lease. A minority prospect has the same chance of qualifying based on that discretion.

Will the first-in-time law prove beneficial in preventing discrimination, or will the race to be first in line work to the disadvantage of the people the law was meant to protect? Now that the court has reinstated the Seattle ordinance, it is likely that other cities will pass their own versions of first-in-time before we get an answer to that question.

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.

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