In a unanimous vote yesterday, the Seattle City Council took a step toward improving housing options for people with past criminal convictions.
In an 8-0 vote (Kshama Sawant was absent), the council approved "Fair Chance Housing" legislation to bar landlords from considering a potential tenant's criminal history when deciding whether to rent to them.
Under the new law, landlords will not be able to use language like "no felons allowed" in advertisements or impose blanket bans on renting to anyone with a criminal record. When determining whether to rent to an applicant, landlords will be prohibited from asking about arrests that did not result in convictions or convictions for most crimes. Landlords will still be able to consider financial questions like employment, credit score, and income. The law will take effect in February.
"For a criminal justice system that disproportionately arrests people of color, punishing someone who has not been found guilty is a true injustice," said Council Member Lisa Herbold, who sponsored the legislation with Council President Bruce Harrell. "For those who've been convicted, the way I see it, you've paid your debt to society if you've served your time."
A coalition of advocates and the housing affordability committee convened by Mayor Ed Murray in 2015 backed the proposal. Herbold said Monday that "one in three people in Seattle have a criminal background" and said testimony from formerly incarcerated people helped push council members to support the law.
"You've humbled me," she said. "We're here today because of your courage."
The Rental Housing Association of Washington, a lobbying group representing landlords, opposed the law, arguing for incentives instead of regulations. RHA also criticized data used by the city council to support the law.
"The barriers ex-offenders face in accessing rental housing are not caused by landlords, but by structural and institutional barriers," the group wrote in a letter to council members last week.
In June, Augustine Cita told The Stranger he was repeatedly rejected by landlords when he looked for housing in 2013 after being released from jail. "It's much harder to find a place to live than a job when you have criminal history," he said.
The new law will not apply to single family houses or backyard cottages when the owner lives on site. The law will not stop landlords from refusing to rent to people on the sex offender registry if they committed the offense as an adult and if the landlord can demonstrate a "legitimate business reason."
The version of the legislation passed Monday is different in one crucial way than the original version proposed by Murray and Herbold in June. Originally, the proposal would have barred landlords from asking tenants about convictions more than two years old. That could have undermined one of the proposal's stated goals: helping people immediately leaving incarceration access housing and avoid homelessness and recidivism. The version passed Monday bans landlords from considering any convictions (other than those committed as an adult that result in being listed on the sex offender registry), no matter when they happened.
Landlords who violate the new law could face fines of up to $11,000 on first offense, $27,500 for second offenses within five years, and $55,000 for two or more violations in seven years.