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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sue Lani Madsen: City Council’s human rights ordinance could saddle landlords with bad tenants

Win or lose Saturday afternoon, there’s no Zags basketball Monday night. The action will be at the Spokane City Council meeting where there’s at least one hot item on the agenda. Presented for final reading will be an ordinance providing a new Title 18 Human Rights and related modifications to the Spokane Municipal Code. The details were still being worked out Friday morning.

Title 18 consolidates a smorgasbord of human rights references scattered throughout the Code. Consolidation can mean efficiencies, or be an opportunity to expand government.

Three guesses which direction this ordinance is headed.

The potential city budget impact is an expanded role for the Spokane Human Rights Commission. Current language says the commission shall refer a complainant to the “Washington state human rights commissioner or the appropriate agencies.” Proposed language says it will be “evaluated according to the process set forth” in the new Title 18. The pressure will be to expand city staff for administration of the process.

Also expanded is the list of protected classes. In addition to the usual litany, it now includes sources of income as a protected class when it comes to housing. The problem is the reluctance by some landlords to accept certain voucher programs as tenant income.

The Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest is 1 of 43 organizations that have been asked to provide comment on the proposed ordinance. Ed Cushman, president of the 700-plus member association, said the organization is already working on the voucher issue by inviting the Spokane Housing Authority to its meetings to educate landlords on the various short- and long-term voucher programs.

The unintended consequence of making income source a protected class is the landlords’ fear of being sued if they turn someone down. For some landlords, the reaction is to throw up their hands and claim over-regulation is driving them out of business. But council member Karen Stratton emphasized in a recent email that landlords can still set up criteria for tenants “as long as it is an individualized assessment as opposed to a stereotype.”

As of the Thursday draft, the following language had been worked out by the landlords association and the council: “Nothing in this chapter requires the leasing or renting of real property to an individual from a protected class if there is a reasonable non-discriminatory basis for such a refusal.”

So what is a nondiscriminatory basis? From the landlords’ perspective, they need somebody responsible to pay the rent, treat the property with respect and be a good neighbor. How does a landlord use discernment to identify a good tenant candidate without being accused of illegal discrimination because they also have a voucher?

Stratton confirmed verifiable legal income and credit scores can still be used to screen for ability to pay the rent. Rental history and referrals from past landlords can back up a judgment call. Criminal background checks can screen out those with a history of crimes against persons. Having clearly written criteria is critical before tenants apply.

Lurking offstage is the shadow of Seattlism and Portlandia. In August 2016, Seattle adopted a “first-come first-served” ordinance effectively removing all criteria for screening tenants. It has predictably landed in court. Portland recently adopted a so-called “just cause” eviction ordinance that goes further than Seattle’s in requiring landlords to pay relocation expenses for a tenant whose lease is not renewed.

Landlords fear being forced to accept or retain a bad tenant, even if they are acting in good faith to protect their property or the comfort and safety of other tenants.

Such fears are not baseless. A Spokane landlord provided me with a leaked draft of a “just cause” eviction ordinance for the Spokane Municipal Code. When asked last week, legislative assistants for council members Stratton and Amber Waldref vehemently denied any intention by the council to pass a “just cause” ordinance.

Melodramas have primed us to stereotype landlords as villains, twirling their mustaches while demanding “you must pay the rent.” Of course, there are bad landlords, but assessed individually, most landlords recognize tenants are their customers, value good tenants and treat them fairly. Maybe landlords should complain about being stereotyped to the Human Rights Commission.