Finding an affordable apartment in this city is hard enough. Scraping together the first and last month's rent, deposit, and other fees can be even tougher. That's especially true for low- and middle-income folks—people who probably don't work highly paid positions at the region's mammoth employers such as Amazon and Boeing. (Employers that are, of course, attracting lots of new people, who are contributing to rising housing costs.)
It's a special kind of "fuck you," then, to learn that employees of those big companies are being given preferential treatment in housing.
In Seattle and surrounding suburbs, some landlords are blatantly offering renters who work for so-called "preferred employers" special deals on move-in costs, usually in the form of lower fees and deposits. (There are no limits on the deposits and fees landlords can charge.)
"Ask about our preferred employer program!" reads one Craigslist ad for a $1,248 one-bedroom apartment in SeaTac. "Amazon, Boeing, SeaTac Airport, Starbucks Corporate and Military employees get discounts and waived fees!"
Others are less specific. "Ask about preferred employer specials!" reads the posting for a $2,537 one-bedroom near Belltown with a dog washing station and "expansive rooftop deck with spectacular 360-degree views."
An ad for the Luna Sol Apartments in Kirkland ($1,425 for a one-bedroom) outlines just what that building's special deals are:
PREFERRED EMPLOYER PLAN Applicants who work for the following companies: Boeing, Microsoft, Google, and Evergreen Hospital or enrolled at Lake WA Technical College. Also within 5 mile radius will qualify for this move in discount. (company with min. of 10 employees) $150 Non-refundable Holding fee (regularly $300) $250 Security Deposit (regularly $500)
Landlords aren't hiding this, probably because they don't think it's a violation of fair housing rules. It's not as blatantly discriminatory as, say, quoting someone higher rent because of their race or sexual orientation, which is clearly against the law.
But the practice is now raising questions among housing-advocacy types. After it came up at a recent meeting of lawyers, advocates, and city staffers, a spokesperson in the city's Office of Civil Rights says they're "looking into it" and expect to have more information by October.
If the office decides this practice is a violation of fair housing rules, staff might investigate the landlords offering these deals, but it's too early in the process to know if that will happen.
Mercedes Elizalde, who works at the Low Income Housing Institute and recently ran for a city council seat, has experienced both sides of this practice. In late 2012, when she and her partner were looking to move in together, they were offered discounts on their move-in costs at multiple apartment buildings in South Lake Union and on the Eastside because her partner worked at Microsoft. For the apartment they ended up moving into, the landlord waived the $400 deposit.
Now, in her role at the Low Income Housing Institute, Elizalde helps homeless people transition into long-term housing. Part of that work is helping them cover move-in costs. Those costs, she says, can be a significant barrier to permanent housing.
"If you ask most landlords about the different prices, they’ll tell you they’re necessary costs," Elizalde says. "If that’s true and you take them at their word, that means when they're waiving them for someone who can afford them, they're redirecting that cost to people who can’t afford them."
Sean Martin, director of external affairs for the Rental Housing Association, which represents landlords, says he hasn't heard of this practice. But he doesn't think it's intended to be discriminatory. "It's probably pretty transparent... If [landlords] are finding renters who have jobs at these places, it's more than likely they're going to have a good income and a secure job," he says. "It doesn’t seem [like there's] any intent to not rent to certain people."
Fair housing laws say housing providers must set rents, deposits, and fees without discriminating against people based on factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. Giving preference based on one's employer doesn't explicitly discriminate against any of those protected classes of people.
But there is something called the "disparate impact standard." That's the legal term for an argument that a housing policy can be illegal if it has a discriminatory effect, even if the intention behind the policy is not a discriminatory.
"I think it’s certainly a suspect practice," says Eric Dunn, an attorney at the Northwest Justice Project, a legal aid organization. "I can’t off the top of my head say it's definitely illegal, but I think there are some strong arguments that it violates fair housing laws."
Courts have repeatedly held that disparate impact can prove housing discrimination. This year, the US Supreme Court again defended that interpretation. In a case in June, a Texas nonprofit sued that state's Department of Housing and Community Affairs, arguing that the way that agency doled out low-income housing tax credits kept minorities segregated in poor, non-white areas of Dallas, even though that wasn't the intended effect. The case hinged on whether the court would uphold disparate impact as discrimination.
From the Atlantic, before the ruling:
The Supreme Court case centers on whether Texas had to be discriminating against minorities on purpose to be found unlawful. After all, it’s difficult to prove that anyone had the intention to discriminate. It’s much easier to prove that an action had a discriminatory effect—and the evidence is clear that the policies did segregate families in Texas. If the court rules that disparate-impact claims cannot be brought in Fair Housing Act challenges, it would essentially defang the FHA, housing advocates say.
“To suddenly remove what is the core protection of this Fair Housing Act would fundamentally dismantle the very architecture of civil rights laws, and would put an end to, and possibly reverse, the gains that were built over the last half century,” said Dennis Parker, the director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU.
A 5-4 majority of the court sided with the ACLU, upholding the disparate impact standard.
If someone were to challenge the preferred employer program in Seattle, he or she would have to show that the practice has a discriminatory effect. If the landlord showed he or she has a legitimate business reason for the practice, then the challenger would have to prove that there is another, non-discriminatory way the landlord could achieve the same goal.
Housing advocates and lawyers I interviewed for this story made a few potential disparate impact arguments. In each, a court would be looking at how this practice discriminates based on protected classes such as race or gender:
1. Amazon and other tech companies employ mostly white men, especially in high-paying jobs, so women and racial minorities could be negatively affected by this sort of practice.
2. Because people with disabilities are a protected class and some people with disabilities are less likely to be employed, benefits that favor people with jobs at these companies could disadvantage people with disabilities. "They're negatively affected in the sense that they have to pay full price," Dunn says.
3. If the companies that get the breaks tend to favor highly paid workers, it's low-wage workers who are negatively affected. Since women and people of color are overrepresented in low-wage jobs (that's according to the National Employment Law Project and other groups), this practice might negatively affect women and racial minorities—both protected classes.
"I think most landlords are good people," the Low Income Housing Institute's Elizalde says. "They're not trying to say we want as few people of color, people with disabilities, and single mothers as possible… but because those groups make up a large majority of low-wage workers, that’s going be the effect of it."
But these could be difficult arguments to win.
Both Jesse Wing, a private housing lawyer in town, and Roxanne Vierra, a civil rights specialist at the King County Office of Civil Rights and Open Government, told me they would have a hard time proving a disparate impact of this practice. In part, that's because of the math.
A lawyer challenging these special benefits would have to show that enough of the people negatively affected—in other words, enough of the people who don't work for Amazon or Microsoft—were members of a protected group, like people of color or women.
"You’re benefiting a few people and you're disadvantaging a whole lot of people, only some of whom are going to be in the targeted class," Wing says. "I’m not a statistician, but I would imagine I'd have a problem proving a disparate impact."
So, maybe it's nothing more than a shitty practice, but a perfectly legal one. Even for all the legal gray area, the effect is clear to Elizalde.
"This is essentially something that allows people to create barriers for people without specifically saying, 'We don’t want those people,'" she says. "Whether it was tech companies or whatever big business was in our town, they would be seeking to benefit high-wage workers at the expense of low-wage workers. I think that’s the problem."