Seattle Landlords Battle Restrictions on Criminal Background Checks

by Chris on May 7, 2018

Small landlords in Seattle are taking on the city’s new tenant screening restrictions, one ordinance at a time.

In March, a court handed landlords a victory by declaring the city’s first-in-time ordinance unconstitutional. Now, the Pacific Legal Foundation has filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s “Fair Chance Housing” law which limits a landlord’s ability to reject tenants with criminal backgrounds.

The groups allege that the restriction on criminal histories amounts to a violation of landlords’ free speech and due process rights by unfairly limiting their ability to rent to the tenant of their choice.

The legislation passed city council unanimously in August of 2017. By design, the ordinance did not take effect until February, 2018 so that the city could implement a training program designed to educate landlords and tenants. The stated intent of the ordinance is to prevent bias. The ordinance prevents landlords from “unfairly” basing housing decisions on criminal history, and from advertising that excludes all applicants with criminal backgrounds.

During the screening process, city landlords are not allowed to base rejections on:
Arrests that did not lead to a conviction;
Convictions that have been expunged, vacated or sealed;
Juvenile records; or,
Status of a juvenile tenant on the sex offender registry.

City lawmakers claim that rejecting applicants with criminal backgrounds increases recidivism, which in turn makes communities less safe. One lawmaker argued that no study has shown criminal history affects a person’s ability to successfully be a good neighbor or tenant.

However, Pacific Legal Foundation says that the ordinance means landlords cannot take into account personal safety — like placing pedophiles in apartments with children nearby. Even in the case of an adult placed on a sex offender registry, the landlord still must prove a “legitimate business reason” for rejection.

Nothing in the ordinance provides immunity or limits the scope of a landlord’s liability if a tenant with a criminal history harms someone at or near the rental property.

The claims brought against the Fair Chance law are similar to those waged against the first-in-time rule. That previous case likely will serve as precedent for the judge hearing the new claims.

Still, it is important for landlords — including those in Seattle — to understand that criminal history must be used appropriately to avoid a claim of discrimination. The bulk of criminal arrests and convictions involve minorities, and a tenant screening policy cannot unduly burden any particular population due to protected factors such as race, national origin or gender.

That means landlords should:

Prequalify rental applicants and run tenant screening reports, including a criminal record check, only on applicants who are otherwise qualified;
Avoid rejections based solely on arrest records rather than convictions;
Reject tenants for criminal history only if the crime would impact safety or suitability for rental housing; and
Consider factors like the severity of the crime and the length of time since the last conviction.

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).

Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports.

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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