Real Estate

Judge rejects Seattle’s first-come, first-served rental law as unconstitutional

Choosing a tenant “is a fundamental attribute of property ownership,” King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien said in a written ruling.

Daniel Beekman

Seattle’s law requiring landlords to choose among qualified applicants on a first-come, first-served basis violates the state constitution, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Adopted by the City Council in 2016 and in effect since last year, the law “has a laudable goal of eliminating the role of implicit bias in tenancy decisions,” King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien said in a written ruling.

But choosing a tenant “is a fundamental attribute of property ownership,” Parisien said in striking down the law.

The decision is a victory for landlords represented by an attorney from the Bellevue-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for property rights and limited government.

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They claimed the first-come, first-served law violated their property, due-process and free-speech rights, and the judge sided with them in each instance.

”While landlords are permitted to set their own rental criteria,” Parisien said, “this preliminary, general rental criteria does not substitute for the discretion to choose a specific tenant.”

Ethan Blevins, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said the judge’s ruling means Seattle must immediately stop enforcing the first-come, first-served law.

“We’re especially gratified she was willing to uphold the key precedent we relied on,” he said, referring to a case related to trailer-park tenants.

Blevins said he expects Seattle to appeal. The City Attorney’s Office didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold championed the law in 2016, saying her goal was to ensure renters are treated equally.

At the time, officials said they were unaware of any other U.S. city with such a law.

When landlords are allowed to choose among multiple qualified applicants, their biases may come into play, Herbold and other proponents said.

Seattle’s law exempts landlords renting out rooms in their own home, plus granny flats and backyard cottages. The law doesn’t exempt landlords renting out apartments in duplexes and triplexes where they also live.

Some landlords accepted the move, saying they were already operating on a first-come, first-served basis — for efficiency’s sake and to avoid discrimination claims based on existing fair-housing laws.

Others warned of unintended consequences, saying the law would advantage people with the time and ability to respond quickly to apartment listings.


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