1. If you’re a renter who makes less than six figures, you already know how hard it is to find an affordable apartment in Seattle. Now imagine that you’ve convicted or arrested at some point in your life. (Quite possibly, you don’t have to imagine—according to the city, 173,000 Seattle residents have an arrest or conviction on their record.) The legislation, sponsored by council member Lisa Herbold, would prohibit landlords from advertising that they don’t accept tenants with criminal records, and would bar them from asking prospective tenants about convictions that are more than two years old, juvenile records, convictions that have been expunged, criminal charges that did not result in a conviction, or pending charges.
As I’ve reported, the legislation as originally proposed included a number of exemptions—on top of the two-year window, it did not apply to landlords of small buildings (four units or fewer) who live on the premises. By exempting small landlords who live on their properties, the original bill effectively accepted the premise that people with criminal histories are inherently dangerous—too dangerous, anyway, for landlords to live next to them.
That exemption, as it turns out, has a fascinating history. It originated in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, where it was known as the “Mrs. Murphy exemption.” That exemption says that it’s acceptable under federal law for a landlord to discriminate against someone because of their race if they rent to no more than four people or families and live on the premises. (Mrs. Murphy was, as the New York Times’ Adam Liptak put it, “an apocryphal bigot.”) That exemption has remained in place to the present day; however, many state statutes go beyond federal law and do not include the exemption.
The city’s Office for Civil Rights was unable to say precisely how the exemption got into the proposal, except that it was originally included “to address concerns raised during the stakeholder process,” according to OCR policy manager Brenda Anibarro. “We recently learned of the history of the federal FHA exemption from an article in the Harvard Law Review which includes a significant history steeped in racism,” Anibarro said in an email. “It is for this reason we believe Councilmember O’Brien’s amendment striking this exemption is the correct course of action.”
Interestingly, the “Mrs. Murphy exemption” does not appear anywhere else in Seattle’s municipal code, and the city’s “first in time” rule, which prohibits landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants because of their source of income, only exempts single-family homeowners who live at their properties and are essentially renting to roommates.
Last Tuesday, the council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee discussed an amendment by council member Mike O’Brien (who is out of town) to remove the exemption. Council member Lorena Gonzalez noted that the exemption for small buildings could make “naturally occurring affordable housing”—the small, mom-and-pop type units that anti-displacement advocates often argue the city must preserve—off-limits for the people who need it the most.
Other amendments to the proposal would prohibit landlords from considering an adult prospective tenant’s juvenile sex offense record (landlords could still refuse to rent to adult sex offenders) and remove the two-year “lookback” period. (The sex offender amendment is Herbold’s; the lookback amendment is O’Brien’s.) As advocates have pointed out, people exiting jail are much less likely to reoffend if they have stable housing; nonetheless, one in five people exit King County Jail directly into homelessness, according to All Home, largely because landlords refuse to rent to them.
Herbold, who has not decided whether to support O’Brien’s lookback amendment, says she has heard from small landlords who say they might choose to to sell their buildings instead of renting to people straight out of prison, removing affordable units from the rental market. On the other hand, many people who are just leaving jail or prison would probably be disqualified from renting on the private market anyway, because they wouldn’t pass a standard credit check, so eliminating the lookback may have little practical impact in any case.
The committee will consider the amendments, and the legislation, again at its meeting on August 8.
2. On Tuesday morning, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee voted unanimously on what council member Rob Johnson called a “no-brainer” proposal that will remove one step in the process that opponents of new projects must go through before filing a formal appeal to stop a proposed development. The step, called a land-use interpretation, costs $3,150 and is required before a project can go before the city’s hearing examiner, the judicial official who ultimately decides whether contested projects can move forward.
As I reported earlier this month, a council staff analysis concluded that removing the interpretation step could “facilitate judicial appeals of land use decisions for projects that may be considered locally undesirable by near-neighbors, such as low-income housing projects, work-release centers, and homeless shelters.” Those appeals will now cost just $65, making it easier than ever for homeowners to stall projects they don’t like—projects like the 57-unit Phinney Flats development, which Phinney Ridge homeowners have held up for more than a year by filing endless appeals on issues such as parking, transit headways, shadows, and lack of air conditioning and washing machines in the new apartments.
3. The land use committee also considered, but did not vote on, three amendments Herbold proposed to legislation that would it easier for the city to force property owners to demolish vacant buildings that have fallen into disrepair.
Currently, city law requires property owners to wait a full year before tearing down a building if it was most recently occupied by renters; the changes would lower that timeline to four months (which the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections says is still plenty of time to “ensure that good-quality rental housing is not inappropriately removed”) and make it easier for the city to demolish or clean out hazardous properties and so-called squatter houses.
Herbold’s amendments, which she describes as a three-part package, would: Exempt many houses slated for redevelopment from the new four-month requirement; set up a mandatory vacant property monitoring and registration program; and prohibit land owners from demolishing buildings unless the cost of repairing the building exceeds half its replacement value.
Herbold’s reasoning, as she explained it Tuesday, is that vacant buildings could still be used as housing while they await demolition and redevelopment, and that the original proposal—which lacked a monitoring program—could provide a perverse incentive for property owners to kick out tenants and let their buildings fall into disrepair. “The language as originally proposed was much broader than I intended,” Herbold said Tuesday.
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