Murray proposes ordinance to protect renters against discrimination based on source of income

Mayor Ed Murray today transmitted legislation to the City Council expanding fair housing protections for renters using subsidies or alternative sources of income to pay their rent. The Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) also released new guidelines on the use of preferred employer discounts in rental housing.

“For Seattle to become more affordable, we must reduce the barriers that our most vulnerable residents face finding a home to rent,” said Mayor Ed Murray. “If someone receives veteran’s benefits or child support payments, they should be able to use that income to rent an apartment and not be turned away. We also need to ensure that properties that offer discounts to employees of a specific company are not having an impact on other renters.”

The mayor’s proposed legislation expands civil rights protection to renters with legal and verifiable non-wage sources of income such as Social Security, veteran’s benefits, and child support. It also extends these same protections to our most vulnerable renters and people experiencing homelessness who use rental assistance provided through rapid rehousing or subsides to prevent eviction. Currently, Seattle’s Open Housing Ordinance only offers protection to Section 8 voucher holders.

“We recently represented a client whose landlord gave notice to all the tenants in the building that rental subsidies would no longer be accepted,” said Merf Ehman of Columbia Legal Services.  “We also saw an admissions policy where a landlord will not accept tenants with protected income like retirement or disability benefits. Landlords should not be able to discriminate against people just because they are retired, disabled or utilize a subsidy.”

The legislation also:

  • Prohibits a landlord from denying a housing application solely because an applicant uses subsidies or alternative sources of income to pay rent.
  • Prohibits a landlord from evicting, harassing, or retaliating against a tenant for using alternative sources of income to pay rent, or using advertisements that state a preference on income.
  • Lays out rules for how landlords should calculate subsidies and alternative sources of income if they elect to use rent to income ratios when screening tenants.

A recommendation of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee, the legislation was developed with input from a stakeholder committee comprised of tenant advocates, landlords, social service agencies and nonprofit housing providers.

Today, SOCR also released formal guidance on the use of preferred employer programs in rental housing. In 2015, media and community members reported that property management companies were offering discounts on deposits and other move-in fees to rental applicants who worked for particular employers. These discounts were reportedly not offered to other applicants. Given Seattle’s high rents and increasing affordability challenge, incentives and opportunities for certain groups over others may perpetuate existing racial, gender and other social inequities.

SOCR has developed Enforcement Guidance on the Use of Preferred Employer Programs in rental housing. SOCR has concluded that in some instances, preferred employer programs that provide discounts or other terms and conditions in rental housing to certain groups over others may constitute discrimination under Seattle’s Open Housing Ordinance (SMC 14.08) if that program is shown to have a disparate impact on one or more protected classes.

“We will look at complaints about preferred employer programs on a case by case basis,” said Patricia Lally, SOCR Director. “Some programs may be legal; others may cross the line and violate our fair housing law.”

To determine the legality of a specific preferred employer program, SOCR will conduct a disparate impact analysis outlined by HUD’s Disparate Impact Rule. The rule covers practices that may adversely impact a group of people who are covered under the law, even if the practice itself appears neutral on its face. SOCR’s Guidance also describes how the Office would conduct an investigation of a disparate impact complaint.

Renters who feel they may have been impacted by a preferred employer program in rental housing should contact the Seattle Office for Civil Rights at 206-684-4500, or submit information at www.seattle.gov/civilrights/file-complaint.