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Battle over housing rights rages on with another lawsuit filed against city of Seattle

SEATTLE -- One side says landlords have too much power. The other side says government is overreaching and meddling in business they shouldn’t be in.

That's the fight playing out right now in Seattle.

A judge recently sided with landlords, striking down a Seattle law that required landlords to accept tenants on a 'first-come first-served basis.'

The ordinance is known as the First In Time policy and city leaders say the fight is not over.

Seattle City Council members are pushing a plan to appeal the decision that deemed the policy unconstitutional.

While that battle continues, the city is now dealing with another lawsuit that was just filed on Tuesday.

The latest deals with the Fair Chance Housing ordinance. It's a policy that bans landlords from ever asking or looking into an applicant's criminal history.

Landlords say they feel demonized by the Seattle City Council.

“Anybody who is offering something that involves wealth and value is bad,” Chris Benis said of what he perceives the Seattle City Council's thinking to be.

Benis sued the city and won over the First In Time policy recently.

A court ruled Seattle violated the Constitution when it took away a landlord's discretion to rent to who they want. King County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Parisien said property owners had fundamental rights and that choosing a tenant was one of them. Parisien said the rule was oppressive and that it also violated free speech rights to negotiate with potential tenants.

It’s a win for Benis and other plaintiffs represented by attorney Ethan Blevins with the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Under the previous law, “I couldn't ... go to someone who was offering me better financial terms, a better business deal,” Benis said.

But on Wednesday, council member Lisa Herbold said she supported an appeal of the court’s decision that struck down the law.

The City’s Attorney’s Office confirmed to Q13 News that they will appeal straight to the state Supreme Court.

“There is a concept called implicit bias and that’s what the First in Time legislation is intended to address,” Herbold said.

Herbold says housing discrimination is a problem.

“Evidence of bias of people of color, against LGBTQ, renters based on age and gender,” Herbold said.

Benis said state law already bans against those kinds of discrimination.

He said the city’s policy is not helping the people it intended and, instead, is pushing good landlords out.

“It’s hard to say it's not helping the people it was intended to help, because it was just passed and we haven’t done an analysis on the law,” Herbold said.

“My family owned three apartment buildings in the city of Seattle; my family has sold them all in the last year and half,” Benis said.

Benis added that the decision to sell their rental properties solely came down to the two ordinances passed by Seattle leaders.

In addition to First in Time, he is also supporting the lawsuit against the Fair Chance Housing ordinance that bans landlords from seeking criminal history information from potential renters.

The Rental Housing Association filed the lawsuit against the city on Tuesday.

“I don’t know anybody who is disqualifying anybody for non-violent offenses. What landlords are concerned about are repeated continuous, dangerous activity that poses legitimate harm to our building and tenants,” Benis said.

But Herbold defended the Fair Chance Housing ordinance.

Without it, she said, “We are allowing landlords to basically exercise an extra-judicial punishment against renters that is contrary to fundamental principles of justice in this country."

Benis said it’s yet another government overreach and he believes a judge will strike it down in court, too.

“I think anything that restricts landlords from using publicly available information is a problem,” Benis said.

As for how much it’s costing the city to fight the two lawsuits, the City Attorney’s Office said there isn't a dollar amount to provide because staff attorneys are personally working on the cases as opposed to hiring an outside firm.