By Becky Bower
On August 23rd, 2017 Ed Murray, the Mayor of the City of Seattle, signed into law an ordinance restricting the use of criminal background information for tenant screening. Aiming to lower the barriers to housing for applicants who have ‘served their time’, the law holds the same sentiment as the city’s Fair Chance Employment ordinance, but puts the burden on the rental industry this time. This law will become effective 30 days after it was signed, on September 23rd, 2017.
Unpacking CB 119015
This ordinance (CB 119015) prohibits the following:
- Advertising that you exclude those with criminal records from applying to rent.
For example, writing “no criminals” on your online listings is a big ‘no-no’.
- Requiring an applicant to provide or obtaining criminal record information on any occupant.
Do not ask your applicant about their criminal record (whether it’s directly or on your rental application) and you cannot seek criminal record information from a tenant screening company. The sex offender registry is the only exception.
- Deny an applicant based on sex offender registry information of an adult applicant, unless you have a legitimate reason to do so.
If you perform adverse action against an adult applicant on the registry, you will need to provide evidence of why they will be a threat to your property or other tenants (more on that below).
- Deny an applicant based on sex offender registry information of a juvenile applicant, or deny an applicant on the registry of an adult applicant (however the conviction occurred when the individual was a juvenile).
Age is a big factor when denying an applicant on the sex offender registry. If the offender was convicted when they were under 18, or they are currently under 18, then you are prohibited from denying them.
- Consider any supplemental information supplied by the applicant.
This can be things like a statement from the applicant, a statement from their current or previous employers and landlords, a certificate of rehabilitation, etc.
The New Adverse Action Process
As I said above, you are prohibited from denying an adult applicant on the sex offender list (who was an adult at the time of conviction) unless there is a “legitimate business reason”. To legitimize the adverse action (proving that it is not based on discriminatory interest) you will have to provide reliable evidence connecting the denial to policy/practice and tenant safety or the safety of your property. While determining if this applicant is a danger to your tenants or property, you:
- Cannot consider any other non-sexual convictions, regardless of the nature of the crime, to justify denial.
- You will need to consider the nature and severity of the conviction
- You will need to consider the number of such sexual convictions
- You will need to consider the time lapse since the conviction(s).
If you go through with the adverse action, you will need to specifically identify the sex offender registry entry that was the basis of your decision. You will also need to provide the name and address of the Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA, or tenant screening service), as well as notice of the applicant’s right to receive a free copy of the report.
Exempted Landlords and Rental Properties
All rental properties in the City of Seattle will be held to this law, except HUD affordable housing (because that falls under federal guidelines), single-family dwellings where a landlord or subleasing tenant also lives, and a detached dwelling on the same lot as the owner lives (on a permanent basis).
Penalties for Violations
The fines for breaking this law are especially high. You can be fined up to $11,000 if you have had no prior violations, up to $27,500 if there’s a violation within the past 5 years, and up to $55,000 if you have 2 or more violations within the past 7 years.
On top of Seattle’s “first come, first served” ordinance (CB 118755), which passed early on in the year and requires landlords to rent their vacant housing units to qualified applicants one at a time, and the city’s ban on move-in fees or pet fees(CB 118817) in April, these recent ordinances forces independent landlords and property management companies’ hand. While the stigma against individuals who have ‘served their time’ certainly exists, laws like these put the responsibility of rehabilitation (and the liabilities that come with it) on landlords and property management companies. Although those with a criminal past aren’t all bad tenants, if you own multiple properties, the odds are not in your favor. The big question now is if a tenant with a criminal history does commit another crime within your rental property (even against another tenant), will the public lash out against the law… or the landlord?
Do you support Seattle’s criminal screening ordinance or do you oppose it? Let us know in the comment section if your city or state has proposed or passed similar legislation, and be sure to subscribe!
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