More than likely, it’s perfectly legal for a galling line like this to appear in a Craigslist ad for an apartment in Seattle: “Amazon, Boeing, Sea-Tac Airport, Starbucks Corporate, and military employees get discounts and waived fees!” (Translation: Anyone who’s not working for one of these “preferred employers” is shit out of luck and will just have to pay full price at a time when full price for an apartment in Seattle is increasingly unaffordable for people who don’t work at Amazon, Boeing, Starbucks Corporate, and so on.)
In fact, that very line and others like it have appeared in recent rental ads in the Seattle area. Housing advocates say such “preferred employer” ads are discriminatory because they favor people who are more likely to be high-wage workers. But it turns out that offering these discounts is not illegal.
Sure, advocates and lawyers say, they could try to show that by favoring certain industries, like tech workers, such policies negatively affect legally protected classes (such as women or people of color) that are sometimes underrepresented in those industries. If that kind of discriminatory effect could be proved, it could make the “preferred employer” practice illegal. But it would be difficult to prove.
Instead, people looking into “preferred employer” programs say, it’ll take a change in city law to stop such discounts. And with that, the question morphs from a legal one into a political one. What can politicians in Seattle do to stop this practice? And do they—or, say, the candidates running for their jobs on the city council—even want to?
Shortly after The Stranger posted a story on August 28 calling attention to these “preferred employer” discounts, a couple of city council candidates e-mailed their campaign supporters decrying the practice. They were heavy on outrage and light on specifics.
“If elected Seattle’s District 1 council member, I would make ending this practice a priority,” wrote Lisa Herbold, the longtime aide to Council Member Nick Licata, who’s running for a seat representing West Seattle.
“This issue is especially threatening to the pursuit of equity in our city because it’s not discrimination, it’s preference,” wrote Lorena González, a civil-rights attorney running for a citywide council seat. “If you want to know what privilege looks like, this is it… We must pass legislation making preferential renting practices illegal within the Seattle city limits.”
Now other candidates are following suit. I reached out to all 18 people running for city council seats in this fall’s election. Of the 14 candidates who responded, all of them say they oppose the practice of offering renters who work for large companies discounts on their move-in costs.
City lawmakers could probably just pass legislation to ban these deals, says Eric Dunn, an attorney at the Northwest Justice Project, a legal aid organization. But, he adds, “these preferred employer incentives are not the main problem.” Dunn says the even bigger problem is that landlords frequently turn away low-income renters because they get part of their income from public assistance or other nontraditional sources.
If the mayor, current council members, and the candidates who want their jobs are looking to do even more to help low-income renters—the people often left out of these special deals—housing advocates say there are two things they could do that go beyond just trying to ban “preferred employer” incentives: (1) Expand the city’s narrow protections against housing discrimination based on source of income, and (2) rein in move-in costs for renters. (Doing the first one, advocates point out, might discourage “preferred employer” programs while doing a lot of other good, too.)
Today, Seattle’s laws against discrimination in housing include all the standard categories—race, gender, sexual orientation, and age. They also include protections for people benefiting from Section 8, the federal rental-assistance program started in the 1970s.
But there are other rental-assistance programs and types of income, like child support and disability benefits, that aren’t currently protected. That means a landlord can refuse to rent to someone because they get part of their money from those sources. And as the burden for funding homeless- and housing-assistance programs has increasingly shifted from the federal government to state and local programs, help other than from Section 8 has become even more important for low-income people searching for housing, says Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. However, state and local antidiscrimination laws haven’t kept up.
Expanding the city’s discrimination protections to say that no legal source of income (rather than just Section 8) can be the basis of refusing housing would likely help combat preferred employer discounts and help renters who are currently being refused because of where they get their rent money.
Advocates have pushed to change this at the state level, but they’ve been unsuccessful. Now they’re going local. The mayor’s housing affordability committee, known as HALA, recommended expanding source-of-income protections, and the council is expected to consider that legislation early next year.
Council incumbents Bruce Harrell and Sally Bagshaw didn’t provide comment when asked about these proposals and the practice of giving “preferred employer discounts.” Neither did Bagshaw’s long-shot opponent Deborah Zech Artis.Council Member Kshama Sawant was out of town and unable to comment, but a representative from her campaign called preferred employer discounts “clear discrimination against certain sections of workers in Seattle.” A spokesperson for the mayor says he won’t comment either until the Office for Civil Rights had finished reviewing the practice of preferred employer discounts. (An Office for Civil Rights spokesperson says that office expects to finish a review of preferred employer programs within about a month.)
Of those 14 candidates who did respond to my questions, support for expanding the city’s source-of-income discrimination protections as a way of clamping down on “preferred employer” discounts was strong. All of those candidates say they would support the change, except incumbent Mike O’Brien, who says he has “not yet had a chance to review what legal options we have as a city [to stop preferred employer programs], and I would like to do that before I make a commitment to specific legislative action.”
Sean Martin, director of external affairs for the Rental Housing Association, says he can’t comment on expanding source-of-income protections until legislation has been drafted. (Other cities and states across the country have similar rules, on which Seattle’s would likely be modeled.)
The other step the city could take—imposing caps on move-in fees, which goes one step further to help all low-income renters—will be a much bigger fight. Council President Tim Burgess says the practice of giving preferred employer discounts “doesn’t seem fair” and he supports expanding income discrimination protections for renters, but he dodged the question about whether he would support a cap on move-in costs. His opponent in the general election, tenant advocate Jon Grant, has made capping those costs a central plank of his campaign.
Grant wants to limit move-in deposits and fees to the equivalent of one month’s rent and wants to require landlords to allow tenants to pay those costs over two to four months instead of all at once at move-in.
Michael Maddux, one of the two candidates who knocked incumbent Jean Godden out of the running in Northeast Seattle’s District 4, has also campaigned in part on that idea. (His timeline for tenants to pay move-in costs is slightly longer: three to six months, “depending on the size of deposit and length of the lease.”)
Maddux’s opponent in the general election, Rob Johnson, doesn’t support capping the fees. Johnson says “setting an arbitrary cap on fees landlords are allowed to charge at move-in will only result in increased rent prices and further economic evictions across our city,” but that “we should work with landlords and property owners to see more uniformity across rental locations when it comes to move-in charges.”
In District 1, Herbold’s opponent, Shannon Braddock, also hesitated on this issue. “I’m not certain that the Grant or Maddux proposals are the appropriately defined caps,” she writes in an e-mail, “but I believe this should definitely be vetted as a policy option.”
Both Braddock and Johnson benefited in the primary election from independent expenditures funded in part by the Rental Housing Association. The RHA is ready to fight limits on move-in costs.
“That really sounds like a way of getting at rent control without it being explicitly rent [control],” says Martin, of the RHA. “It’s just eating at the edges… That’s something the industry wouldn’t even entertain, I don’t believe.”
But is it something Seattle voters want their city council members to seriously entertain? (Along with eliminating “preferred employer” discounts?)
The upcoming November 3 council elections—and in particular the Grant versus Burgess citywide race, the Maddux versus Johnson race in District 4, and the Braddock versus Herbold race in District 1—may give us an answer.