Landlords suing over Seattle's 'first come, first served' rental ordinance say it's unconstitutional

SEATTLE -- A lawsuit in Seattle pits some fundamental rights against each other -- it’s civil rights that ban discrimination, and property rights that allow owners to decide what to do with their homes and land.

The issue is with a new law that requires landlords to rent to tenants on a "first come, first served" basis. The goal is to make sure all renters are treated equally.

But the landlords who are suing say the program is a bureaucratic nightmare and unconstitutional.

Critics say it’s all about the survival of the fastest, but supporters say it levels the playing field for renters.

For most people looking for housing, it starts in front of the computer taking hours sometimes to find a good rental.

“I am seeing more and more people leave the city, especially millennials,” Jessa Lewis said.

It’s hard enough finding a place she can afford in Seattle but Lewis says she has another hurdle.

“It was said because you have a child we won’t rent to you,” Lewis said.

The single mother says she’s been discriminated against in the past.

“You may have no idea what biases a landlord may have,” Lewis said.

That’s why Lewis supports Seattle’s new policy that forces property owners to take the first qualified tenant.

“This idea of taking the first person who walks in the door doesn’t match the way I manage the property,” said Chris Benis, who's family owns a six-unit apartment in Seattle. He says the rental income will go to pay for his three sons to go to college.

But Benis says the new ordinance is making it almost impossible to run his business efficiently.

“It’s going to make us make this crazy list that nobody is going to comply with,” Benis said.

That ‘crazy’ list he’s talking about is a screening criteria that landlords will have to provide to renters who apply.

For property owners, it’s a way to target the type of renter they want. The new ordinance requires a property owner to take the first applicant that meets the criteria.

“I’ve spent hours putting my rental property together, it’s about four pages long,” Benis said.

A good rental history and credit reports are no longer enough because Benis says landlords now have to be very specific about everything.

“You have to have everything on a piece of paper and you have to have it in your ad,” Benis said.

The process is more than just cumbersome, he said. Benis believes the government has stripped away landlord rights -- things like discretion, intuition and bargaining he uses during the interview process is now out the window.

“This ordinance just makes people on some assembly line take a number like the DMV,” Benis said.

He’s so frustrated that Benis is suing Seattle, and he is one of five families named as claimants in the lawsuit.

“When the government takes away a fundamental attribute of property ownership, your right to sell, to exclude or lease, then that effectively is an unconstitutional taking unless they compensate you,” Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Ethan Blevins said.

Blevins added that the irony is the ordinance will hurt the very people city leaders are trying to assist.

“Blue-collar jobs who can’t take an hour off in the middle of the workday to apply to a unit that pops up; it’s going to be the people who apply immediately,” Blevins said.

Q13 News made that point to Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold.

“We will do an assessment of the impact of these polices,” Herbold said.

But as of now Herbold is defending the policy.

“We still find a lot of discrimination in housing,” Herbold said.

Herbold is pointing to the fair housing test, done every year by the Office for Civil Rights. People pose as prospective renters and test landlords for biases.

In 2015, the test found that 34% of landlords showed bias when it came to familial status. And 63% of landlords showed bias towards disabilities.

“The fact is it’s occurring and this law is intended to make sure it’s not occurring,” Herbold said.

Benis says the ordinance might stop unconscious bias but it also stops conscious goodwill.

“There is an assumption that landlords are operating with bad instincts, not good instincts,” Benis said.

Benis says he’s made exceptions for tenants in the past who needed a break. But now he says the ordinance prevents him from using that kind of discretion.

He says the city should go after the bad landlords, not penalize the good ones.

“A lot of rental property owners might just leave the market, they are going to say this is something I can’t deal with,” Benis said.

As Benis fights the new policy, Lewis will welcome it.

“To be honest, it’s not the perfect law but neither is the situation it is trying to address,” Lewis said.

She’s so passionate about Seattle’s rental market, Lewis just became the executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.

“I am here because I believe in the work and I promised my daughter she can finish out high school here,” Lewis said.

The law does exempt mother-in-law units and backyard cottages. The rule is in effect now but will not be enforced until July.

If a landlord is caught violating the new rules, they could receive hefty fines, up to $11,000 for a first violation and about $27,000 for the second.

Blevins, the attorney, says the lawsuit could take a year and half before a judge makes a final ruling.