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Landlords suing Seattle over ‘First in Time’ law have their day in court

SEATTLE -- A Seattle law requiring landlords to take the first qualified tenant who applies has been in effect for more than year. But it’s also been in litigation for most of that time.

Landlords who are suing the city of Seattle over the ordinance had their big day in court on Friday.

They say the state already has laws preventing discrimination against renters and that Seattle’s policy is an unconstitutional overreach.

A judge is expected to announce a ruling in a few weeks.

It’s going to be a landmark decision because Seattle is the only city in the country to implement a first-come, first-serve type of policy.

When the Benis family bought a rental property in Seattle, it came with a lot of personalities.

“I liked all the tenants who lived there,” Alexander Benis said.

It’s a property that Chris Benis, a father, uses to teach his sons.

“That money didn’t just come from the sky, the idea was that you guys would go out there and help maintain the building,” Chris said.

Now Chris and Alexander are having a different conversation.

“The city of Seattle basically prejudges us as bad people who can’t be trusted to pick their own tenants,” Chris said.

This family is one of several landlords suing Seattle over the ‘First In Time’ policy.

It is an ordinance requiring landlords to take the first qualified applicant who walks in the door.

“Because of this law we decided as a family, sitting at this very table, to sell that building. We simply do not wish to be real estate owners in the city of Seattle where we can’t have any discretion on who to do business with,” Chris said.

Chris is a real estate attorney himself. He says many people he’s hearing from are also getting out of the rental business in Seattle or advertising very strict qualifications.

“People are willing to have a vacancy for longer if it takes, (if) they can get somebody that won’t present a danger,” Benis said.

We talked to renters on the streets about how they feel about the rule. One woman who has two children says she sees the positives in it.

“I definitely think a landlord would want to rent to someone who is single and doesn’t have kids who will spill on the carpet,” said the woman.

“I would say they are impeding on the rights of the owner owning the place,” said another renter.

As we wait for a judge’s ruling, the Benis family is about to take up another challenge against the city.

“The First in Time law has been greatly expanded,” Benis said.

A new law went into effect this week in Seattle banning landlords from checking criminal records.

“Is somebody dangerous? Are they an arsonist, are they a murderer, a rapist? Landlord has zero authority now to inquire into that area,” Chris said.

Supporters of the measure say everyone deserves housing. But even some renters say the policy makes them uncomfortable.

“You want people to feel safe, the law makes me a little leary of who is living next to me,” said one renter.

The Benis family says they are now considering filing a different lawsuit challenging the criminal background rule.

“It’s not the tenants that we are against, it’s about the misguided law,” Chris said.

The latest law says even if someone is a registered sex offender, landlords cannot automatically reject that person. They have to find out mitigating factors and make a case to the city on why they are rejecting the applicant.

As for the First in Time law, we found out that only one person has alleged discrimination in the past year.

The investigation centered around a tenant who was denied an application for an apartment in July 2017. The city says investigators worked with both parties and reached a settlement that included the landlord paying two $250 donations to local housing nonprofit organizations. The landlord also agreed to attend a Fair Housing training and workshop.

The law exempts people who rent out mother-in-law units.

We reached out to speak to City Council members and none of them were available to speak about the First in Time law.