Mayor Ed Murray won't propose an all-out ban on special move-in deals for employees of certain big companies, but his administration will look at those discounts on a case-by-case basis to figure out whether they're legal, the city's Office for Civil Rights announced today.
It's been almost nine months since I first wrote about landlords giving tech workers discounts on deposits and other move-in fees and a spokesperson for the city's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) told me they were "looking into it." Finally, today, the OCR released a set of guidelines for landlords today and warned that while some of these so-called "preferred employer" discounts are legal, others may violate fair housing laws. To figure out which programs are legal, the city will gauge whether they negatively affect a protected group of people by doing a "disparate impact analysis."
As I explained last year:
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."
Special deals based on a tenant's employer could be discriminatory, some lawyers and advocates told me, if that employer disproportionately hires white men or the discounts favor high-wage workers but not low-wage workers at the same company. The practice could also harm people with disabilities, some of who may be less likely to work and therefore have less access to these types of discounts. But proving those effects will be difficult. We won't know whether any of the programs in Seattle are illegal until the OCR—which, incidentally, is understaffed—actually does some investigations.
If the council doesn't want to wait on a complaint-based, case-by-case process, it could instead pass an all out ban on preferred employer discounts. But it's unclear whether the political will exists for that type of legislation. Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold, who often works on tenant issues and is vice chair of the council's affordable housing committee, said she plans to look into it.
"Just because they're legal under the current law... I don't know that that necessarily means we want to maintain status quo," Herbold told me today.
Mayor Ed Murray made another important announcement today that will affect vulnerable tenants. Murray introduced legislation banning what is known as "source of income discrimination"—when landlords deny rental applications because the tenants get some of their income from non-traditional sources like government assistance or child support. That legislation has been expected for a while.
The city already has similar protections for people who rely on Section 8 vouchers, but housing advocates say many low-income tenants are still turned away because they depend on other programs. In a statement from the mayor's office, Columbia Legal Services lawyer Merf Ehman said that organization has worked with clients whose landlords refuse to accept rental subsidies or retirement and disability benefits as payments toward rent.
"Landlords should not be able to discriminate against people just because they are retired, disabled or utilize a subsidy," Ehman said.
The city has been pushing for this type of legislation in the state legislature for years, but has had no luck. Last year, the mayor's housing affordability committee, known as HALA, recommended passing it on a local level. With the legislation now on its way to the city council, landlords could push back. A spokesperson for the Rental Housing Association, which represents landlords, told me that group hasn't yet taken a position on the bill. But it's still likely to be popular on the council. "I think this is a high priority for the council," Herbold said.