Seattle

Seattle first restricted the right of landlords to choose their tenants. Then it forbade looking into a prospective renter’s criminal activity.

Both cases ended up in court, and the city already has lost the first case, while the second is pending.

Now Seattle officials have launched a third attack on the rental industry.

This time, they are demanding the removal of a website that would allow renters to bid on prospective homes.

City officials say the websites “might” inflate housing costs or “might” conflict with housing laws.

The ban’s sponsor, Teresa Mosqueda, said, “We must have the opportunity to learn about new platforms, such as these ‘rent bidding’ platforms, and ensure that they live up to the equity and housing access values of our city.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which is suing the city on behalf of one of those websites, Rentberry Inc., and Delaney Wysingle, commented: “Apparently, the people of Seattle lack the wisdom and virtue to figure out their own values or assess a website unsupervised. But the city council is not shackled by such human frailty. Hurray.”

PLF explained that the city council decided that it didn’t like new housing websites that allow tenants to bid on rent.

“The city council had no evidence that these websites hurt anyone. Only a handful of people in Seattle have even had a chance to use the new sites. But the city council banned them for a year anyway while the city studies them.”

The legal team continued: “Ironically, rent-bidding platforms try to address a problem that the city council itself has utterly failed to fix–high housing costs. Bidding allows rents to arrive at a rate determined by a transparent market, which may be above or below a landlord’s asking price. And websites like Rentberry provide a range of other benefits like cheaper application fees, crowd-sourced funds to help users afford steep security deposits, and a streamlined application process. The city council should give innovation a chance. In fact, the city council must give innovation a chance; they aren’t feudal lords who get to decide what’s best for their flock of groveling serfs.”

The lawyers said: “Usually, censorship–especially something as severe as banning a website – would be a last resort. For Seattle, it’s the first resort. Usually, only overwhelming evidence can justify censorship. For Seattle, the ghost of a suspicion will do. Seattle touts itself as a tech hub, but tech-savvy cities don’t ban innocent websites at the drop of a hat. That’s the kind of self-righteous bullying we’d expect from a tin-pot dictator, not a city on our own shores. But a city on our shores also has to explain its behavior to our courts. That won’t be easy.”

The complaint notes that the fight is over the plaintiffs’ rights of freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“The city is violating those rights by enforcing a ban on rental bidding websites that facilitate communication between landlords and renters.”

Seattle’s most recent dispute with renters and landlords came up when officials decided it would be an “unfair practice” for landlords to ask about a prospective tenant’s arrest records, conviction records or other criminal history.

The city even makes it an “unlawful practice” to refuse to rent to prospective tenants who are on a sex-offender registry. And it bans landlords from making decisions based on their own personal safety, the safety of other tenants, or discomfort with convictions for “sex offenses, crimes against children, or even hate crimes.”

The lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court argues the ordinance violates the Due Process and Free Speech provisions of the constitutions of Washington and the United States.

That’s the same court that ruled earlier this year that a city measure requiring landlords to rent to the first applicant, regardless of circumstances, was unconstitutional. The decision said choosing a tenant is “a fundamental attribute of property ownership.”

Judge Suzanne Parisien granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs.

“There is no genuine issue as to any material fact,” she wrote. The landlords challenged the ordinance and while it contained “a laudable goal,” she found “it is undisputed, and specifically acknowledged by the city, that the FIT rule affects a landlord’s ability to exercise discretion when deciding between potential tenants that may be based on factors unrelated to whether a potential tenant is a member of a protected class.”

The plaintiffs had claimed constitutional violations: taking property without compensation, taking their property for an improper public use, violation due process and violating free speech.

 

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