Court Strikes Down Seattle’s First-in-Time Rental Ordinance

LeaseOn March 28th, after a year-long lawsuit, the King County Superior Court struck down, as a violation of the state constitution, Seattle’s “first in time” ordinance which required residential landlords to screen rental applications in chronological order and award the lease to the first eligible applicant.

The ordinance, which became effective on January 1, 2017, also created requirements which were intended to prevent discriminatory practices affecting those who may use subsidies or alternative sources of income to pay rent, requiring landlords to calculate subsidies and alternative sources of income when applying income screening criteria, and forbidding landlords from advertising or otherwise showing preference for tenants or tenant-applicants who mainly rely on traditional sources of income or employment.

In her ruling, Judge Suzanne Parisien held that choosing a tenant is a fundamental attribute of property ownership, that the first-in-time rule’s few concessions to landlords’ interests do not redeem it, and while landlords are permitted to set their own rental criteria, this preliminary, general rental criteria does not substitute for the discretion to choose a specific tenant.

Judge Parisien also held that while attempting to stop discrimination is a “legitimate public purpose,” the law is overly broad and unduly oppressive because it “severely restricts innocent business practices and bypasses less oppressive alternatives for addressing unconscious bias.”

The City Attorney’s office disagrees with the ruling and believes that first-in-time is a good policy that helps landlords screen tenants and avoid claims of fair housing violations. The City filed its notice of appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court on April 26, 2018. Below is a link to Judge Parisien’s order and the City’s notice of appeal:

Notice of Appeal to Supreme Court No. 17-2-05595-6 SEA

If you have questions about landlord-tenant matters, please contact one of the attorneys in MPBA’s Real Estate Department.