Pioneer Human Services and the Tenants Union Seek to Join Lawsuit, Defend Seattle’s Fair Chance Housing Ordinance

Friday, August 3, 2018

On August 2, 2018, two nonprofit organizations that advocate for fair and affordable housing moved to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the Rental Housing Association and three landlords challenging Seattle’s Fair Chance Housing law. Pioneer Human Services and the Tenants Union seek to defend the law, which passed unanimously in 2017 and is one of the most progressive housing laws in the country, aiming to make rental housing in Seattle’s heated housing market more accessible for everyone by ending discrimination against people with criminal records. The law provides more opportunities for Seattle residents to attain safe, stable housing that is essential for building strong communities.  

At a time when Seattle has declared a state of emergency on homelessness, a criminal record remains an unnecessary barrier to housing and greatly contributes to our city’s housing crisis. Over the past two decades, landlords in Seattle have increasingly used criminal background checks to screen prospective tenants for housing despite the lack of evidence linking criminal records to successful tenancy.

“Throughout our city we see people struggling to access housing, and communities, especially communities of color are facing displacement,” said Violet Lavatai, Interim Executive Director of the Tenants Union. “Strong and effective fair housing laws are a vital tool for ensuring equal opportunity – that includes eliminating unjustified and outdated policies that, in practice, segregate and discriminate.”

About one in every three Seattle residents over the age of 18 – well over 170,000 people – have an arrest or conviction record. Moreover, major racial disparities exist within this group. A recent fair housing test in Seattle found that Black and Latino prospective renters were more often told about criminal record and credit checks than White prospective renters.  The Fair Chance Housing law will help to address these discriminatory practices that limit housing options for people of color searching for housing in Seattle.

“Housing discrimination is very real for people with criminal histories,” said Hilary Young, Vice President of Advocacy & Philanthropy at Pioneer Human Services. “As a landlord, we know that a person’s background has no bearing on their ability to be a good tenant. And we believe people should not continue to serve their sentence in the community after they have paid their debt to society.”

Kim Gunning, attorney with Columbia Legal Services, noted that “The Fair Chance Housing law is an effort to increase fairness and to address racialized injustice that is embedded into our system, and we are proud to represent Pioneer Human Services and the Tenants Union in protecting the rights of all people in our community to access opportunities for rental housing and ending discrimination.”

Efforts to end this discriminatory practice date back to 2006 when groups such as Village of Hope and Sojourner Place (now Jubilee Women's Center) first raised the issue. In 2017, a large, engaged group of city residents who are impacted by criminal records and advocacy organizations, including Pioneer Human Services and the Tenants Union, strengthened the initial proposal which emerged from a diverse stakeholder group brought together by the Mayor to focus on housing affordability.