Seattle landlords must pick first eligible tenant under new ordinance

SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council passed a huge renter protection ordinance on Monday that requires landlords to pick the first eligible tenant who qualifies for a unit or property.

Under the ordinance, landlords could no longer choose whichever tenant they think is best. The goal of the ordinance is to prohibit discrimination against people with different forms of payment, such as vouchers and subsidies.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold said Seattle is the first city in the nation to require a "first-in-time" policy.

“It’s considered to be a best practice among rental housing providers,” Herbold said. “When rental housing providers can establish that they follow a policy like this, they can also use that policy as a basis to argue that they’re not discriminating.”

Hugh Brannon, a landlord in Queen Anne, said he has always chosen the first eligible tenant in his three decades of renting units out. But he does not agree with the need for making that a law.

“I would like that personal freedom. After all, I’m not selling you a quart of milk and you go away. I am loaning you a valuable piece of property at a fraction of its cost. I’d like the personal freedom to run my business. And if I’m not discriminating, why can’t I have the freedom to run my business?” Brannon said.

The only exception in the rule would be for landlords who are personally living in a house, where they are renting out a unit on the same property. For example, a landlord who may require medical assistance can rent a unit out to a nurse in the same home.

As for accepting all forms of payment, including different types of subsidies, Brannon said that could become a problem if he were forced to accept short-term vouchers. He asked what would happen if the tenant’s vouchers expired.

Herbold told KIRO 7 that around 80 percent of people with short-term vouchers ultimately stay in their housing by paying for rent on their own.

Councilmember Tim Burgess added an amendment Monday afternoon that requires the city to conduct an audit of these policies 18 months from the ordinance taking effect.

He also wanted an audit of the effectiveness of short-term vouchers.

Here are some of Natasha Chen’s tweets from council:

Twenty-three Seattle property owners were accused of rental housing discrimination in May.

An investigation found that prospective renters experienced different treatment from Seattle landlords across all three categories that were tested: familial status, disability and use of a federal Section 8 voucher.

The department also found one manager advertised for "professional tenants only." Monday’s proposed ordinance would ban “preferred employer” treatment.

KIRO 7 previously reported on apartment buildings advertising move-in specials for employees of Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, Nordstrom, local colleges and local hospitals. Those employees would often see deals that amounted to $200 off of deposits and fees.

Jordon Cox, who works for Amazon, said, “I have worked for a smaller company here in Seattle too. And I feel like having that heads-up when I was working there would be as helpful as it is now. So I could see that equality. That sounds nice.”

This ordinance also adds a section that requires landlords to accept emergency assistance vouchers, in the scenario that they have issued a three-day order for a tenant to vacate. They must accept such a voucher as long as that voucher would turn into cash within five days.