FORMER convicts deserve a second chance, and have too often been unfairly stigmatized and denied opportunity. But Seattle’s new Fair Chance Housing Ordinance takes the wrong tack. By forcing landlords to accept tenants regardless of a criminal past, the city simply barters one injustice for another. Several mom-and-pop landlords, represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, have responded by challenging the ordinance as a violation of their property rights.
The Fair Chance Housing Ordinance enacted last year makes former convicts akin to a protected class. Landlords are forbidden from requesting an applicant’s criminal history, nor can they deny someone tenancy because of a criminal conviction. The ordinance offers property owners little flexibility, even on grave offenses. Whether the ex-con forged a prescription or butchered a spouse, it matters not. Under this rigid new law, the landlord cannot deny that person tenancy because of a past conviction.
The ordinance does allow for a limited exception. If a prospective tenant is a registered sex offender — and committed the related crime as an adult — then a landlord can deny that person’s application if they can show a “legitimate business reason” for doing so. In other words, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights will decide if you’ve offered a good enough reason for not wanting a convicted sex offender living on your property.
But even if the city were to make this tiny exception more generous, the law still would violate basic property rights. The lawsuit brought by landlords is based on a simple premise: They have a right to decide who will live on their property.
Landlords’ concerns don’t stem from an irrational stigma. Being compelled to blindly rent property to people with a serious criminal history raises genuine safety concerns. Take, for instance, one of the plaintiffs here: Kelly Lyles, a single woman and survivor of sexual assault, wants to feel safe when she goes to the West Seattle house she rents out to collect rent or address any problems.
In addition, landlords have a moral and legal duty to protect their other tenants. Washington law requires landlords to protect renters from the foreseeable criminal conduct of other tenants.
Renting out property is not a one-time, arms-length exchange like buying a bagel; it involves a lengthy, ongoing relationship. The decision to accept the potential risk of renting to someone with a checkered past should rest with the property owner.
Opposition to this ham-handed law doesn’t imply blindness to the plight of ex-cons, many of whom have paid their debt to society and are hoping for an opportunity to move on from their pasts. In fact, most of the plaintiffs suing the city have rented to former convicts in the past. But that choice should lie with the person who will bear the risk of the choice — not with distant bureaucrats with no skin in the game.
Moreover, robbing landlords of their property rights is hardly the sole means of giving former criminals a leg up. Ironically, studies cited by the city in defense of the controversial ordinance actually conclude that assisted public housing is the best way to help convicts reintegrate. And yet the ordinance exempts public housing from the Fair Chance Housing requirements.
This isn’t a zero-sum game. We can help former convicts without trammeling people’s fundamental right to employ their property as they see fit — and that starts with putting an end to Seattle’s misguided new housing ordinance.