Seattle Restricts Landlords’ Questions About Tenant Criminal Backgrounds

The Seattle City Council has passed an ordinance 8-0 to bar landlords from using criminal records to screen tenants based on past arrests or criminal convictions, with the exception of sex offenders, according to a release.

“The Fair Chance Housing ordinance would prevent landlords from screening applicants based on criminal convictions; arrests that did not lead to a conviction; convictions that have been expunged, vacated or sealed; juvenile records,”  Councilmember Lisa Herbold said in a release.

Remove barriers to housing for people with criminal histories

“The City will work with stakeholders to develop legislation that ensures fair access to housing for people with criminal records. Stable housing ensures people can engage with their communities and families and obtain stable employment.

“Deep-rooted inequities in the criminal justice system have created lasting effects on communities of color that have created barriers to housing. Furthering fair housing for all our residents is an affirmation of the City’s longstanding commitment to race and social justice,” the roadmap states.

Landlords know blanket policies cannot be used when it comes to criminal backgrounds

Sean Martin, external affairs director for the Rental Housing Association of Washington State, said in an interview with the Seattle Times this is a national issue not just a Seattle issue.

He said that landlords know blanket policies against criminal histories are no longer allowed. It should be individual assessments by landlords based on nature of the crime, the severity of it and when it was committed to see if there is a risk.

“We need to tie in whatever the risk is to determine whether to rent,” he said of landlords. “There is risk there for sure. There is no list that says who is naughty and who is nice.”

Small landlords have a harder time, he said. Larger corporate entities may have a three-person panel where they send the criminal report over to them and have them make the decision and kick it back to the property manager.

He said there are some tools the state, city or county could provide to landlords.

“We do not feel it should be the landlords’ responsibility to solve a societal problem,” he said.

This is a bit cynical, he said but, “Pretty much any legislation that has been thrown out that is putting obligations on landlords is a foregone conclusion to pass,” he said, and probably sometime in July. “Tenant advocates do not want us to look at criminal records at all. That is crazy. The rest of the population should be really concerned about that voice,” he said.

Computer services make it easier to check tenant criminal backgrounds

Nick Straley, Columbia Legal Services attorney, told the Seattle Times that computerized access to criminal records has made it now much easier for landlords to find out the criminal background of prospective tenants.

The issue comes down to whether and to what extent a landlord may use someone’s criminal record in deciding whether they should rent to them, he said.

“This is a new problem. This is a consequence of computerized access to public records and the aggregation of big data,” Straley told the Seattle Times. “Also the proliferation of new businesses that provide computerized information to landlords.”

A modern day scarlett letter?

“So 20 years ago this was not a problem. A landlord would have had to go down to each county courthouse and pull some of these records to determine whether or not someone had a criminal record,” he said.

“And so what this really is, is the modern day scarlett letter – we have attached an indelible mark to people who have already served their debt to society, and simply want to get back to their lives and families and go on with their lives.

“We are glad this is something the city is starting to discuss,” Straley said.

Not Renting To Felons Could Be Discrimination

The U.S. Department of Justice has said categorically not renting to felons  can be considered discrimination and a violation of Fair Housing Act.

The Justice Department said the use of criminal background checks by rental housing providers “could produce unlawful discriminatory effects in violation of the Federal Housing Act,” according to a release from the Justice Department.

Is the “no-felony-ever” lease clause dead?

David Pickron, owner of RentPerfect, an investigative screening company in Arizona, says the days of saying “no-felony-ever” are over for landlords unless the felony is a sex offense.

“The problem is that no one wants to take on that liability. Because on the other side, if they do something, we get sued or we all lose rent. So there is a big fight now between the private markets and the federal government,” Pickron said.

The key is WHAT the felon has been doing in society since he or she got out, he said.

“We are not even saying to our clients, ‘Hey it’s seven years since the crime was committed. It’s seven years since they have been back in society.  So that takes a lot of those serious crimes out over seven years,” Pickron said.

Seattle Bars Landlords From Using Criminal Records To Screen Tenants

Listen to the Seattle Times podcast on criminal background checks by landlords here.

Download our eBook  here on 7 Issues And Answers About Renting To Felons

Criminal background checks and issues landlords need to know