Washington state Supreme Court's decision to strip landlords of right to choose tenants highlights safety concerns

The Washington state Supreme Court in recent years has effectively blocked Seattle's landlords from choosing their tenants as part of the city's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda.

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Most recently, the Supreme Court passed the city's "First-in-Time" (FIT) ordinance in November, which requires landlords to approve the first qualified tenant who applies for a property.

FOX News correspondent Dan Springer said tenant groups say the FIT law will "level the playing field and wipe out property owners bias in the rental market" while landlords say the law "violates their century-old right to lease to the tenant of their choice."

The "Fair Chance Housing" ordinance, which prevents landlords from rejecting applicants based on criminal history, went into effect in February 2018 but still in active litigation after facing legal challenges.

The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) and Rental Housing Association of Washington filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle in May, arguing that the Fair Chance Housing ordinance violates landlords' constitutional rights.

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PLF attorney Ethan Blevins says both ordinances have fostered debate and severely impacted the practical realities of both landlords and tenants. While he says it's too early to tell how these laws have impacted housing in Seattle, it's not "hard to forecast the impact."

Two PFL clients who took issue with Seattle's tenant laws have expressed safety concerns. MariLyn Yim and Kelly Lyles, for example, depend largely on renting out their property as a source of income, but as landlords, they share their homes with strangers, and Seattle's housing agenda takes away their ability to chose who they -- as well as their families and children -- live in close proximity with.

Blevins told FOX Business that Lyles is a sexual assault and domestic violence victim. "Safety is very important to her,"  because she deals with clients directly, he said.

"Landlords are walking into these relationships blind," Blevins said.

Seattle's ordinances remove some of the precautions landlords like Yim and Lyles take when accepting tenants and deciding who they will have "long-term relationships" with.

In regard to the Fair Chance Housing act, in particular, Blevins noted that the majority of prisoners who are released will reenter prison at some point in their lives. Five in six -- or 83 percent -- of prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested at least once within nine years of their release, a 2018 study from the Justice Department shows.

Blevins said that while the city may have good intentions in terms of helping those who have been imprisoned find their footing and reenter society, Seattle has exempted all public housing from the criminal history rule. Blevins argues that public housing needs the criminal history rule more than the city's private housing market because public housing gives ex-inmates a better chance of success.

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"The city has tried to say stable housing provides people a chance to get their lives back on track and not get re-arrested, but it's not going to help," Blevins said. "Formerly incarcerated people will struggle in the private housing market, especially with paying rent and facing possible eviction. They'll miss out on opportunities that public housing offers."

"Getting somebody into housing doesn't mean the housing will be stable," he added.

Seattle's FIT law not only brings challenges to landlords, but it also may harm qualified tenants' chances of getting housing because it's all based on chance. Blevins noted that people who apply most quickly to available spaces have the "highest upper hand." Therefore, those who have cars, flexible work hours and computers will have an edge over more disadvantaged applicants.

Once applicants apply for a property, they then have 48 hours to decide on a space, which may seem like a short time window for applicants, but in those 48 hours, landlords cannot take offers from any other qualified applicants, even if the person considering the space ultimately decides against signing a lease or if someone else presents a better counteroffer.

"In the meantime, landlords are missing out on people who are ready to move in," Blevins said. "For most landlords, you may not be looking at [a tenant] entering in the middle of the month -- there's usually a narrow window where people will be shopping around for housing."

He added that some landlords try to get around the FIT requirements by meeting applicants before they submit their initial application to see if they are a good fit before opening that 48-hour window.

"Once you pass [a law] like this, it develops a life of its own, and it's harder to repeal," Blevins said.

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