U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour today rejected a challenge to the City’s Fair Chance Housing law, which bars most landlords from denying housing to applicants or taking other actions against tenants because of their criminal history. The City Council adopted the law in 2017 and it has remained in effect during the pendency of the case, which began in 2018.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said, “A criminal conviction should not be a lifelong sentence to living on the streets. Housing access is core to stabilizing a person’s life, so I’m thankful to the judge for making the sound legal decision today. This case racks another win for the City by Assistant City Attorneys Roger Wynne and Sara O’Connor-Kriss and our outside counsel, Jessica Goldman.”
Councilmember Lisa Herbold (District 1, West Seattle & South Park), co-sponsor of the legislation, said, “When Seattle became the first city in the country to pass Fair Chance Housing in 2017, we knew it would change the lives of many who were unfairly rejected as tenants because of a criminal record, despite having served their time, or for others, never convicted in the first place. This policy is more important today than ever. Policymakers are reimagining the criminal justice system and the public health benefits of being housed during a deadly pandemic are self-evident. Further, blocking people who have fulfilled the terms of their sentencing from accessing housing is a recipe for recidivism. With housing, a person is seven times less likely to reenter the criminal justice system. I would expect anyone in favor of a safer Seattle to support this decision.”
Herbold added, “Thank you to the City Attorney’s Office, and all those who worked on this case, for successfully defending this policy, which gives so many Seattleites a fair shot at accessing housing.”
The court’s decision today represents yet another loss for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has recently unsuccessfully challenged Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program and First-in-Time law. In a lawsuit that remains ongoing, PLF faced a setback in January in their case against Seattle’s and Governor Inslee’s eviction moratoria, the City’s three-to-six month overdue rent repayment plan ordinance, and the City’s six-month eviction defense after the current COVID-19 eviction moratorium ends.
The Fair Chance Housing ordinance made it an unfair practice for landlords and tenant screening services to “require, disclosure, inquire about, or take an adverse action against a prospective occupant, a tenant, or a member of their household, based on any arrest record, conviction record, or criminal history,” subject to certain exceptions.
Landlords represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation challenged the ordinance, claiming it violated their constitutional rights to free speech and substantive due process. Judge Coughenour rejected their claims.
Today’s ruling was informed by a State Supreme Court decision that answered Judge Coughenour’s questions about Washington’s substantive due process law. The Supreme Court’s 2019 decision overturned over sixty prior decisions that had hampered Washington governments’ ability to enact and enforce laws for the betterment of their residents.