Seattle landlords would be almost completely prohibited from screening prospective tenants based on their criminal histories, under a proposed ordinance approved by a City Council committee Tuesday.
The only people who could be denied housing based on their criminal histories would be those listed on sex-offender registries because of adult convictions.
And landlords denying housing to such sex offenders would still need to state a legitimate business reason for doing so.
Some landlords say they should be allowed to consider the criminal histories of prospective renters to better protect their property and their tenants.
During a public-comment period Tuesday, landlord Sara Weaver said the ordinance’s backers want to “put the safety and security of tenants at risk and set property owners up for potential damage.”
Before adopting the new regulations, the council should commission its own study on whether people with criminal histories tend to be worse tenants, Weaver said.
Proponents of the legislation say people who already have served their time shouldn’t be again punished by landlords. They say people denied by landlords based on their criminal histories can end up homeless and are more likely to re-offend than people with housing.
“Nobody is more safe when people who have criminal backgrounds are unhoused,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, chair of the committee and a sponsor of the ordinance with Council President Bruce Harrell.
The backers point to studies of supportive-housing programs in which criminal records were not shown to be predictive of problem tenancies.
“Please help the homeless people. They have rights, too. They’re human beings just like we all are,” said Mellie Kaufman, a vendor with the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project.
Weaver, the landlord, said such studies aren’t relevant because they looked at supportive housing.
The version of the legislation that Mayor Ed Murray sent to the council in Junesaid landlords would be allowed to consider criminal convictions less than two years old, and it said landlord-occupied buildings with four or fewer units would be exempt.
But the civil-rights committee voted unanimously Tuesday to eliminate the two-year look-back clause and nix the exemption for small, landlord-occupied buildings.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien brought forward the amendments, receiving support from Herbold and council members Debora Juarez, Sally Bagshaw, Kshama Sawant and M. Lorena González. Harrell and council members Rob Johnson and Tim Burgess didn’t attend the committee meeting.
A Herbold amendment approved Tuesday calls for the new regulations to be evaluated by the city auditor, with a report due by the end of 2019.
In addition to criminal convictions unrelated to sex-offender registries, the proposed Fair Chance Housing ordinance would prohibit landlords from looking at pending criminal charges, arrests not resulting in convictions or juvenile records, including juvenile convictions causing people to be listed on sex-offender registries as adults.
Under existing law, landlords can deny housing to tenants for arrests that happened within seven years, including arrests not resulting in convictions, according to Herbold.
“Landlords will still be able to screen applicants based on employment, credit scores, income ratios or other criteria,” Herbold said in a statement.
“For a criminal justice system that disproportionately arrests people of color, punishing someone who hasn’t been found guilty is a true injustice,” she added.
“Blocking formerly incarcerated people from accessing stable housing or a job is an extrajudicial punishment and is also a recipe for recidivism and less safety for our communities. I would expect anyone in favor of a safer Seattle to support this bill.”
The ordinance would take effect 150 days after being signed by the mayor, with the Seattle Office of Civil Rights taking responsibility for enforcing the new regulations.
There may be new costs to the city, but those have yet to be determined, according to a City Hall analysis.
The push began in late 2015, when a group of local organizations led by the Tenants Union of Washington State and Columbia Legal Services started a campaign called FARE — Fair Access to Renting for Everyone.
In early 2016, Murray convened a task force on the issue, including representatives from both landlord and tenants groups.
Tuesday’s meeting was the fourth at which Herbold’s committee discussed the legislation.