Seattle Council forces rental owners to accept first applicant

Posted By: Sean Martin (deleted) Seattle Laws,

On Monday, August 8, Seattle City Council adopted new legislation which forces rental housing owners in Seattle to process applications beginning with the first person in line (submits a complete application w/supporting info, and pays a screening fee). Called "first in time," the legislation essentially mandates a "first come, first served" policy. While this is the recommended practice for conducting tenant screening, it omits several key variables in the screening process, such as being able to interview an applicant, as well as having discretion to rent to a lesser qualified individual who is second in line to give that individual a new housing opportunity.

Setting aside the normal fair housing rules related to protected classes, there has always been a component during the screening process which allowed owners to "interview" an applicant as a part of their process to determine if that person was a good match. This process is no different than a job hiring process where candidates are interviewed based upon their qualifications, and an offer is then made to the person who both meets the minimum qualification requirements, but who also is the best fit at the company.

In essence, this new legislation does the equivalent of forcing an employer to hire the first applicant who meets minimum qualifying standards without the opportunity to interview that person. Perhaps there is a reason why Seattle is the first city to pass such legislation. It either doesn't make sense, is illegal, or is a combination of both.

For rental housing owners this poses a serious threat to the screening process, and removes a great deal of discretion owners would typically be allowed to determine whether or not an applicant is someone they would wish to rent to.

Picture yourself as a woman who owns a large apartment building with a majority of female tenants. Now, imagine having a vacancy and the first person to view the apartment and apply for tenancy ends up sharing a completely misogynistic perspective of life. The Seattle first in time policy will no longer allow that apartment owner to deny that applicant for being a misogynist. Essentially, Seattle City Council has just enacted legislation which protects individuals who have any number of reprehensible life-perspectives from being denied housing by an owner who does not wish to rent to such a person.

This, of course, leads to the logical conclusion that rental housing owners are now going to ratchet up their screening criteria to a very high standard to ensure that the first person in line who applies is very well qualified. That will not help many of the individuals already struggling to find housing in an increasingly competitive and expensive rental housing market.

Perhaps most ironic about a "first in time" policy is that the individuals most likely to be able to respond and apply quickly for a vacant unit are those with higher incomes who have quick, easy access to internet and transportation.

RHAWA is reviewing this legislation, and expects to have more information and recommendations available for members soon.

The "first in time" rules take effect January 1, 2017.