Property Management, Tenant Selection, Real Estate News & Tips

New Rental Law in Seattle – First of Its Kind

By on August 17, 2016 in News with 21 Comments

rental lawStarting in January of 2017, Seattle landlords will need to employ updated rental screening processes to ensure they are accepting applicants on a “first come, first serve” basis. The new policy is intended to combat housing discrimination in the Seattle rental market.  

This new rental law, which is being hailed as the first of its kind, will require that landlords accept the first qualified rental applicant that passes their screening criteria. Seattle is experiencing the nation’s fastest rent increases and a large demand for rental housing, according to Zillow data reported by the Seattle Times.

First come, first serve polices are recommended in the housing industry in order for landlords to avoid discrimination claims, but Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold moved that a general guideline is not enough.

The goal is to ensure prospective renters are treated equally, according to Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who championed the policy. When landlords pick one renter among multiple qualified applicants, their own biases — conscious or unconscious — may come into play, she says. – Seattle Times

Along with the first come, first serve policy, the City Council voted to add anti-discrimination protections based on a renters’ use of subsidy or verifiable alternative source of income; and voted to prohibit preferred employer programs.

The New First Come, First Serve Landlord Policy

Here’s how the city of Seattle plans to enforce the new policy, called the First-in-Time policy.

A landlord will have to disclose information regarding their minimum screening criteria before accepting rental applications.

The landlord will have to screen applicants in the order in which the applications were received,  in person, electronically or through the mail, and make offers to qualified applicants in that order.

Landlords will be required to keep records of when applications were received. Renters can then request those records from the Seattle Office of Civil Rights. If applicants think they were wrongfully skipped, they will be able to sue the landlord.

Source of Income Rental Law

The Seattle City Council today unanimously approved a new law outlawing housing discrimination based on source of income. While the city already bans discrimination against people with Section 8 vouchers, this law will cover all types of income and housing vouchers, like housing subsidies or disability payments to help pay their rent.

Prohibit Special Deals for Tenants Rental Law

The law will also ban special deals for tenants based on where they work, and will require landlords to rent to the first applicant who qualifies, an effort to offset implicit or explicit bias.  

Last year, reported on Seattle landlords providing “Preferred Employee Specials” by offering rent discounts to tech workers at Microsoft and Google. Seattle’s new rental law will prohibit this type of rental discount.

How will the new policies be enforced?

The city will conduct an audit of the new policies 18 months from their taking effect.The goal is to ensure prospective renters are treated equally, according to Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who championed the policy.

Do you exercise a first come, first serve approval process for your rentals? Let us know your thoughts about this new policy in the comments.


About the Author

About the Author: Kaycee (Wegener) Miller manages marketing and media relations for Rentec Direct, bringing a unique perspective to the world of property management and proudly shares industry news, products, and trends within the community. .


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There Are 21 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Bill T says:

    I would like to see an example of a well thought out minimal applicant screening and background check policy.Also what kind of clausec should be in the lease agreement so the landlord has a recourse for a fraudulent application that might not be discovered during the initial application. Also does this mean if we don’t like the applicant or have a “funny feeling” or something seems suspicious about them how can the screening process address this? Bill T. St. Louis, MO

    • I feel like applicants should still have to pass a pre-application interview. In which you could try to establish “funny feeling” criteria…like dresses unprofessionally, has a messy car, does not respond to interview question pleasantly. As long as you use a standard grading criteria for evaluating an interview with everyone I think it could pass Fair Housing rules. If a pre-applicant makes it past the interview then you give them an application and they can fall under the first applied, first approved rule. I think red flags are legitimate screening criteria.

      Here’s some info about Subtle Red Flags for screening:

  2. Do you exercise a first come, first serve approval process for your rentals? Let us know your thoughts about this new policy in the comments:

    For 35 years, my office did a first come, first served policy. It worked very well. HOWEVER with the advent of online applications now being submitted anytime, we could not prevent other applicants from applying and paying for application fees even when we disclosed there are other applications currently being processed and pending. I have fully disclosed our criteria and the possibility that multiple applicants will be considered up until we collect a security deposit. When the marketplace forces you to change your policies, disclosing is the only fair thing to do…..besides: I would like to consider other options as well that others may have…..
    Norbert G. Huston Stockton, CA

    • Sounds like you are being really upfront and honest with your rental applicants. These changing policies will set you ahead of the curve should this type of regulation be implemented in CA. Unfortunately it’s the renters who complain about being “treated unfairly” when they might not be actually taking the time to understand the process (even when it’s laid out in front of them, like you do).

    • Rebecca says:

      I have practiced a first come first serve policy for 15 years. It is a fair approach. I rejected the convenience of on line applications for the reasons that no applicant be sure they are 1st 2nd or 3rd.

  3. Nathan says:

    Bad call Seattle. While I think first-come-first-served is general practice in many areas of the country, I really don’t appreciate it when government gets in the way of people’s freedom to protect themselves and their properties. As landlords, we want to put the best possible tenant in our properties. One that is going to a) pay the rent, b) care for the property, and c) not be a nuisance to us or the neighbors. By requiring first-come-first-served by law, the government is telling us we no longer have a choice or get to use our “gut” in making a selection whatsoever, even if it’s just among a pool of a handful of qualified applicants for the day.

    Basically, a serial ax murderer who hasn’t yet been caught (or was caught > 7 years ago) applies for your property covered in blood from his latest murder applies, has credit that meets our criteria, and showed up early. Seattle requires we rent to him?

    Or, two applicants apply, one who works right next door and will work next door for the next 10 years (aka, a very stable tenant), vs somebody who works 45 miles away (a much less stable tenant). If they both meet the qualifications, Seattle forces you to rent to the tenant who will likely be a very short term tenant?

    Frankly, the City of Seattle should now be responsible for any damage the tenants they are dictating be renters of our properties do. Likewise, responsible for all liability, and also be responsible for any increased vacancy rates as a result of their law.

    • Bj Rutledge says:

      per my other post, nj has tried to implement this for years. real estate investor groups suggest you have written criteria of what you are looking for, certain credit score, rental history, references, job history, income requirement,…………. my criteria includes physical appearance, promptness, call if need to cancel (don’t call later to see the place if you stood me up), even vehicle .. if someone has one vehicle and it is clearly a piece of crap i have to consider that they need money to be able to keep it running…. you should keep records of applicants, their status .. rented, turned down because of xxxxxx, FOr lots of reasons you do want to be consistent.

    • Couldn’t you just have your criteria on your pre-application screening interview include that all applicants need to dress nicely (and not be covered in blood!). If you apply this to all potential applicants then you wouldn’t be violating fair housing. Same thing about requiring a renter work within 20 miles of the property?

      It sounds similar to the ideas BJ is suggesting. Have criteria that helps you eliminate people that you don’t want to rent to. Just be sure to apply it to everyone and keep good records of the reason you denied them.

      Unfortunately, if CSI taught me anything, serial murderers know how to manipulate you and would dress nicely to impress a landlord.

      I am so curious what their “re-evaluation” of the policy in 18 months will reveal.

      • Nathan says:

        Good point on having a criteria of “not covered in blood”, but I just worry there’s too many of these one-off situations. To consider every possible scenario that could present itself may require a 300 page qualifications document.

  4. Bj Rutledge says:

    this has always been recommended policy in NJ. Real estate groups suggest you have a written criteria of what your tenants must meet to rent from you. Usually criteria are: evictions, credit, personal references, time at job, time in same work field (ie if you relocated for better pay for same work in new location) ….

  5. A Larsson says:

    These ideas for additional screening criteria are great, and probably what we will be forced to do. Sadly, I think this will end up hurting those marginal renters we may have taken a chance in based on our gut rather than help anyone.

  6. Maria says:

    Nathan is totally on point. I can only think that Seattle is either pursuing a socialist agenda or city council needs to justify their existence. I believe the current federal laws are enough. The landlords I speak with across the country typically process applications on a first come first serve and the first applicant that meets the criteria is offered a lease.

    I will be changing my criteria and I will pursue my zero tolerance policy with renewed vigor (the day after rents due I’ll post notice and soon as possible file the eviction papers).

    I can tell you now that with this kind of behavior I would not invest in properties in Seattle or Washington state. Furthermore I will warn others to steer clear. Seattle needs to address it’s real problems first because they aren’t going away and hiding behind new policies is just a dodge.

  7. PART Realty says:

    It’s interesting to see a policy like this being implemented. This will definitely please the average renter in the Seattle area and ensure that the process overall is more fair. This process eliminates more of the selection aspect of a landlord obtaining a new tenant and keeps the chances more even amongst the renters. Seattle might be the first to do this but surely more cities will turn to this method if it proves successful. Great article.

  8. drexcathedra says:

    In Marxist confiscatory socialism the State honestly takes ownership of everything. In the sleazy virtue-driven regulatory socialism of the West, ownership remains in private hands (a crucial source of tax revenue!) but the State increasingly controls the actual use of property so that it becomes a functional co-owner or more.

    I see no reason why, in the future, the State should not REQUIRE that certain properties be rented or sold to designated pet minorities. After all, how can the selfish privilege of property ownership compete with the transcendent moral imperatives of racial and social justice, comrades?

  9. What is the next law? Landlords cannot evict tenets that do not pay rent because their income is near the poverty level?
    Seattle is becoming a very landlord unfriendly city.
    I would not be shocked to see many of these rental apartments converted to condos and rentals becoming a thing of the past in the City of Seattle.

  10. M.C. says:

    With yesterday’s passing of Seattle other new rental law, requiring a limit on move-in fees and requiring that tenants be allowed to pay deposit and last month’s rent over a 6 month period, the rental market in the city just got a lot tighter. I personally know of 3 single family home property owners who plan to sell this spring rather than continue renting out their properties. I am sure many more will follow. The only comment on this topic that made any sense to me is that the Seattle City Council is in bed with large property developers, who are the only ones who stand to gain from these laws. Small property owners, the ones who traditionally have been most flexible with tenants with less than stellar rental or financial backgrounds, can no longer afford the risk when they must rent to the first person who applies, and also must offer no-interest loans for their only financial protection against a bad renter (causing damage and/or not paying rent). Larger property owners can afford to have a few bad ones because the risk is spread out. The win for them is that they can now charge higher rent because they will have less competition from the small landlords. So big property companies win, small property owners lose, and renters lose (higher rents). Good job, Seattle.

  11. Julie says:

    Has the “first come, first serve” law actually passed?
    Can anyone share a link to the actual law?
    Thank you!!!

  12. Bourbon Bob says:

    I applaud the intention, but am disappointed with the decision. Landlords should have much more freedom to ensure they can make the best decisions for the use of their own assets.

    The problem I see with the logic of simply specifying the requirements of tenants up front, is that I do not think that it would solve the situations as expected. For example, imagine that you stated in your requirements that you will only rent to single white men between the ages of 30 and 40 with an annual salary over 100k — these requirements would probably never fly.

    But therein is a bigger problem — imagine you own an apartment complex and actually wish to only rent to single pregnant females, as a service for a specific cause that you believe in, but wouldn’t this be considered discrimination? Equally, imagine you wish to only rent to single men to promote brotherly fraternization, or only to adults over 50 (either as a service, or to avoid the common problems of renting to those of younger ages). Technically these are all discrimination, but should still be a property owner’s right.

    Further — where do they draw the line? What if someone simply wishes to rent a room in their home to someone — obviously they would probably prefer someone of the same age, sex, race, religion, political view, etc., for the greatest chance of having someone which might best stand a chance to fit in well in your household… but would this also be restricted? It shouldn’t be.

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