Portland Warily Eyes Seattle's New Rule for Rentals: First Come, First Served

Portland housing officials say they'll wait and see if the policy reduces housing discrimination.

Portland's neighbor to the north is attempting to crack down on housing discrimination with a groundbreaking and controversial new policy for rental housing: first come, first served.

Seattle City Council passed a policy this week requiring Seattle landlords to process rental applications on a first-come, first-served basis and to accept the first qualified applicant that applies.

"There seems to be a strong common-sense argument for this," Leland Jones of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development told The Seattle Times earlier this week.

Seattle, like Portland, is grappling with a tight housing market, steep rent increases and huge demand for scarce apartments. The new rule, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, has been called the first of its kind in the U.S.

Studies have shown that landlords' biases, especially racial biases, create barriers for renters. In Portland, a housing audit conducted in 2015 through undercover testing showed that in 12 out of 25 cases, prospective renters who were white were given preferential treatment.

Matthew Tschabold, policy and equity manager at the Portland Housing Bureau, says that he needs to see how Seattle's law will play out before proposing a similar policy for Portland.

He raised some concerns about the rule, like whether it would negatively impact prospective renters with limited access to the internet, who might not see a housing posting as quickly as someone with internet access.

"How a property manager is making the vacancy available to the public will really determine whether a first-come, first-served model would hurt or support various communities," Tschabold said.

He also emphasized that the law doesn't remove the use of certain screening criteria, like criminal record checks and credit history, which he cited as a major cause of housing discrimination.

"It might be more of a symbolic policy gesture without really addressing the issues," said Tschabold.

Once the rule goes into effect in Seattle, landlords will have to disclose information about their minimum screening criteria before accepting rental applications.

Then, landlords will be required to screen applicants in the order in which the applications were received, and make offers to qualified applicants in that order.

Landlords will be required to keep records of when applications were received. Renters can then request those records from the Seattle Office of Civil Rights. If applicants think they were wrongfully skipped, they will be able to sue the landlord.

There's some wiggle room in the policy. For example, people with disabilities who may need extra time to fill out an application will be given a place on the list of applicants based on the date of their extra-time request.

An online poll created on The Seattle Times website this morning shows that the law has plenty of detractors: So far, only 6.63 percent of respondents think the new law is a good idea, while 81.11 percent think it's a bad idea and 13.26 percent think it needs more study.

Willamette Week

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.