New Seattle Law Lays Out Tenant Selection Rules: Here’s How It Affects Landlords

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I don’t know about you, but I want to pick who my tenants are.

That seems reasonable for any landlord. If I owned property in Seattle, Washington, however, beginning Jan. 1, 2017, I would no longer have that right.

The First-Come, First-Served Law

Seattle recently approved an ordinance that forces landlords to do the following:

  1. Document the date and time of every application received.
  2. Rent to tenants on a first-come, first-served basis.
  3. Disclose to prospective tenants their minimum screening criteria.
  4. Provide the documentation needed for the owner to conduct a screening.
  5. Provide information explaining how to request additional time to complete an application.

The City Council says this law’s purpose is to ban discrimination. But discrimination against whom?

Who Said Anything About Discrimination?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in the Fair Housing Act that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and familial status. No landlord should deny tenants based on those reasons alone.

Related: How to Safely Navigate Landlord-Tenant Laws as a Real Estate Investor

And that’s the point — there’s already a federal law that bans discrimination. The Seattle City Council has another agenda, and let me give you a hint: It’s one that doesn’t favor landlords.


Seattle Is Unique

Landlords who have multiple applicants for a property in every other jurisdiction in the nation can pick who rents their property — as it should be. But in Seattle, the quickest person to submit an application will be the first in line for a landlord to review. And if that person meets the minimum requirements, the landlord must choose that applicant and can no longer review any other applications.

The City’s goal is to provide housing for people with “alternative sources of income,” according to The Seattle Times. This applies to people who receive their income from Social Security or from subsidies instead of from a job.

This isn’t a bad thing. There are plenty of people who make a decent income without having a typical J-O-B, and that shouldn’t prevent them from qualifying. Income is income, as long as it’s legal.

But someone who makes $200,000 a year, however the means, is likely to be more qualified than someone who makes $50,000 a year. The risk for the landlord is less, and the landlord should have the right to choose.

The ironic (and crazy) thing is that “Source of Income” isn’t even a protected class in Seattle.

An Underlying Agenda

And here is the underlying agenda voiced by Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold. Herbold, according to The Seattle Times, is a proponent of the new first-come, first-served law because it will stop landlords from “picking the renters they like best among qualified applicants.”

Is she kidding? Assuming that landlords don’t discriminate on the protected classes, why shouldn’t landlords pick who they like best to put in property they pay for and maintain?

Unintended Consequences

Whenever the government gets involved, for good or bad, there are unintended consequences. And this first-come, first-served law will be no different.

Landlords must tell prospective tenants what their minimum requirements are. The result? You can bet that those requirements will be raised.

So what happens to people who might have made a bad financial decision in their past or who have a short sale or a bankruptcy on their record? If landlords can be free to choose whomever they like, they might consider applicants who don’t meet some arbitrary minimum requirement and instead look at other factors, such as whether potential applicants have been paying their rent on time for the past year or whether they have a steady job.

Related: Landlords: The 6 Best Ways to Minimize Your Chances of a Lawsuit

With the new law, good tenants can’t apply if they have a bad credit score because they probably won’t meet the minimum requirements Seattle requires landlords to set.


The Irony of the First-Come, First-Served Law

The irony of this law is that it does exactly what it intends to stamp out: discriminates against a certain class of people.

And which class might that be? People with jobs.

They will be working and likely unable to put in their application until after work. But since landlords must date- and time-stamp applications, people who don’t work have plenty of time to get in their application.

The Seattle Government Is Watching You

Do you know how renters will know whether landlords are properly time-and-date stamping applications? The Seattle Office of Civil Rights (SOCR) will be able to look through your records. Or if a potential renter even thinks that you skipped over them, they are encouraged to sue you.

Not only that, the SOCR plans to set up sting operations to catch landlords who want to choose their own tenants, fining them between $125 and $500 per occurrence, and that operation will cost the city over $200,000. Seattle is essentially saying, “Let’s go after the people who pay our salaries via their property taxes. Let’s bite the hand that feeds us.”

How Landlords Work in the Real World

Let’s face it: Landlords rent to the people they believe will be the best tenants — based on tenant screening, reference checking, and interviewing. Landlords want tenants who will pay the rent on time, who will treat the rental property as if it were their own, and who will be a good neighbor to those around them. As long as tenants meet those criteria, landlords don’t and shouldn’t care what color they are.


So to summarize, landlords, under this Seattle law, will need to note the date and time of each application they get and will then have to go over the applications in the order received.

As soon as an application meets the minimum requirements set, the landlord must offer the unit to that applicant and can no longer look at other applications.

I can say this: I will never be a landlord in Seattle as long as this law is in effect. And if others feel that way too, renters will have an increasingly difficult time finding a place to rent.

Landlords: What do YOU think about this law?

Let me know your thoughts with a comment!

About Author

Laura Agadoni

Laura Agadoni is a landlord and a journalist whose articles appear in various publications such as Trulia, Landlordology, JLL Real Views, The Houston Chronicle, The Motley Fool, San Francisco Gate, and The Penny Hoarder. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter. @LauraAgadoni


  1. Ian Ray

    Laura, thank you for bringing up the unintended consequences of government interference. Some people just don’t think of the fall out that occurs from taking away self regulation. I will be monitoring how this plays out, due to the fact I wanted to enter this market. Now, I am given pause. Great read.

    • Jim Piper

      Laura: enjoyed the article. I established a written criteria a couple of years ago. I have copies of it available to any applicant. Yes, it does require you think through your criteria. And in doing so you may well rule out some of those people you might have taken from a seat of the pants criteria. And yes, some of those might have been successful tenants. But there’s no doubt in my mind that tenants that you accept by seat of the pants lower criteria bite you in the butt sometimes too. I am not a fan of government regulation, but if it causes you to have a written policy, it’s a good thing. Fico low? There’s always a story why, but it’s always earned.

      • Laura Agadoni

        Good points Jim. I set minimum criteria too, but I have also thrown the credit score part out the window to rent to people who had steady jobs but who make a bad decision in the past. And, knock wood, it’s worked out for me so far. And I feel that’s my advantage as a small-time landlord as opposed to a huge, impersonal management company. This law would take that advantage from me.

  2. Wow Seattle beat SF/Oakland to the punch for another ridiculous law aimed at protecting the customer from the provider. However this is a business, not socialized housing. And true it will backfire and hurt those who it intends to help. As a landlord, I would demand 800 fico, 5x monthly rent gross income, at least 3 positive previous landlord references. Then what happens? Should I decide to relax my standards. And Seattle has a booming housing market like the Bay Area. I just recently had a vacancy for a place and was open to accepting section 8. I had 6 or 8 at my door when I drove up 10 min. Before open house and even a few applications in hand before the perspective tenant even saw the place. Too many gray areas…poorly written law

  3. Steve Vaughan

    Wow. Thanks so much for sharing this, Laura.
    For a while now, I have done pre-screened tenant showings one on one or in small batches. Usually while I’m working on the place and am there anyway.
    I keep the applications hidden in a cupboard or in my car. If crazy or whatever requests an application, I can try to e-mail them one. So many lie or stretch te truth during my pre-screening (by anonymous CL e-mails) I deserve the optiom to forget to bring apps.
    Thankfully in this new spewage from Seatle, I didn’t see where every and any person has the right to receive an application.

  4. Hannah Diment

    Wow! Interested to see how this plays out. I understand the intent behind this law, but the cons seem to so obviously outweigh the pros. Will not be buying in Seattle any time soon, and I hope this doesn’t permeate to nearby cities.

  5. Brandon Hall

    The scarier thing for me is to look at the underlying motive. Here you have landlords who have worked hard to save money and taken additional risks that their peers have not wanted to take, and you have people with large egos or hints of jealousy that want to climb on the backs of moderately successful people and loot from them. It’s truly mind blowing that anyone can feel good about themselves knowing they are literally stealing from others.

    Unfortunately it’s pervasive everywhere. For some reason, the government thinks I’m out to screw my employees so they impose all sorts of regulations to tell me how I should be running my business. So I no longer hire Americans, but instead outsource to the Phillipeans.

    Every reg has unintended consequences. None of these lawmakers are smart enough to include the other side and consider their thoughts objectively prior to enacting their bill.

    Different definitions of success I suppose.

  6. Not really sure the point of the article. The five points mentioned in the screening process are done by EVERY responsible landlord.

    These points are nothing new to Seattle nor anywhere else in the USA. Its been the law everywhere for many decades. Seattle is simply reiterating the law with new words but no changes.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Joel,
      I believe some jurisdictions, California for one, recommend that landlords offer rentals on a first-come, first-served basis. But this is the first law that I know of that requires landlords to do this. This law really hurts landlords with fewer than 10 units the most, in my opinion.

  7. G. Brian Davis

    Great article Laura. It’s a difficult enough business without the government telling us who we have to rent to, and encouraging tenants to sue their landlord. Besides, screening tenants is an art not a science, and it requires blending a lot of different information about a person and their background. There’s no algorithm for it, it’s about piecing together a holistic view of each person and making a judgment call.

  8. Clearly, this is discrimination against landlords. What’s next in Seattle, requiring employers to hire the first “qualified” person for a job? Many large businesses won’t even look at applications for a job until a certain date or a certain number of applications have been received, and then select the person they feel is best suited for their needs. It is just inefficient do handle it one-by-one as the applications are received. Will that be under attack next? I think big business would squash that pretty quickly. This ordinance should be seen for what it is–illegal discrimination against landlords.

    • Zorina Beleiciks

      I’m not an attorney but I understand that this ordinance adds to the open housing ordinance which I believe covers all landlords. It is unenforceable with just a small $125 fine.

      It wasn’t the small landlords that created outrage by advertising discounts to employees of certain companies but everyone will have more paperwork now.

  9. Larry Tanner

    Well, the fact is, the USA is leaning more toward anti-business and socialization. Unless you are a huge corporation, you won’t be able afford to get into business either monetarily or otherwise and this is not by accident. Of course, the more liberal states and localities are the worst when it comes to this, but expect it to infect the rest of the nation, eventually. There is an obvious overall agenda in this country (and all of the Western world) but you can’t see it with your eyes shut. But that is a topic for another blog lol.

    But the bottom line is, get used to it and expect to be railroaded out of being able to run any small business in the future and get used to low-paying jobs. Eventually the only businesses left in this country will be owned by a few elite corporations at the top of the food chain (who have enough money to butter the bread of the government), and that even goes for real estate/rental business.

  10. Jerome Kaidor

    Hmm… If I was in Seattle, I’d do the following:
    * Applications are NEVER accepted in person.
    * We have a PO box, send them there.
    * I visit the PO box a few times a month.

    Then let them PROVE, in which order I opened those apps.

  11. Mary Ann Aulbur

    If this was my market, I would only do open houses. I would hand out applications with the same date and time. So showing at 1 pm and applications disbursed at 2 pm. Then I would close up and leave and come back. Collected at 3 pm or 230 pm or even in 4 hours or more. I would post my minimum standards but make them flexible for me. Also, fees for processing applications (if legal) would be charged all potential tenants.

    I predict some lawyers will have increased business drafting ways for landlords to have some wiggle room with this law.

    I actually feel sorry for the renters. This will make it so much harder for them and possibly more expensive if they must keep submitting application fees. So would there be any working class neighborhoods left in Seattle? Is that actually their goal – to eliminate anyone below a certain income level? I guess I have a suspicious mind to think that but making it harder for landlords does make it more expensive for tenants.

  12. Jiri Vetyska

    Great point Laura! Another bureaucratic obstacle making sure we don’t treat tenants as people, but rather as numbers. I am no fan of this socialistic nonsense. Market dictates prices, so let the market decide who are qualified tenants.
    If the city really wanted to help people get affordable housing – there’s an easy solution, approve new construction in 30 days instead of 3 years, and suddenly affordable housing will make financial sense.

  13. Michael Rivera

    I am a landlord in Seattle. This law does suck. So stupid. But does anyone have an example of what “minimum requirements” are and how they can be adjusted? I think communicating min requirements in ads for units will be key. But just want to get a sense of some examples of min requirements.


  14. will g.

    sorry, but this is just the beginning, if we as a group cannot express opposition, there will be more and more regulation. Not just from municipalities either. Is there anywhere in our country were regulations are being relaxed? My prediction is licencing and tests and fees and continuing education, to be a landlord and generally more and more control, including insurance “minimums” and direct payment and control of deposits and rent, and of course mandatory inspections,(for a fee) and minimum standards, which will probably include ada minimums. The 1 and 2 family industry is ripe for picking!

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Will,
      What you describe is truly a nightmare situation for landlords. And from my understanding, this Seattle ordinance was a backroom deal. Getting out types like the Seattle City Council by electing a more reasonable City Council is key.

  15. will g.

    Do we have a lobbying organization? Obama already came out saying we have to accept felons, soooo…
    If some one wants to cut hair or paint a house in my state(florida) they have to be licenced, trained, pass tests etc.Not much of a stretch to see being responsible for the safety of a family will come under scrutiny, I am surprised it hasen’t yet, i mean landlords are rich, therefore evil people!

  16. David Pierce

    If you take a step back and think about this, it’s absolutely ridiculous. I own the house, pay for the taxes/upkeep, etc. How is the government going to tell me who can rent it? Don’t worry though, we will find ways around the regulation – this is what has to happen when the government oversteps it bounds -which seems to be happening more frequently in recent past.

    • Lauren H.

      Of course check your state law, but I applaud you for any workaround that you can make work in mitigating your risk! Responsible people who build wealth in this world should not have to accept increased risk for their efforts under top he burden of a controlling, nosy government.

      I can’t wait to see what other workarounds people in that market come up with. For now, I will be happy that my market is still the Wild West in terms of government control!

  17. Shawn Loftis

    I think there is some reform that needs to happen but this is a little over the top.

    Case #1: Good but not Great: Couple has 680 credit score and 4x income looking for $1800/month trendy loft / condo in downtown. $40 application fee per person. Rental market is tight so there are typically 20 applications per opening in this trendy area. Without any consumer protection this couple will be spending $80 per application with no chance of ever getting the place because there will always be a better applicant in the hot spot than their application.

    Case #2: Unscrupulous Landlord: Landlord holds an open house on a Saturday for a nice townhouse for slightly below market rent of $1200 / month. Over the course of 8 hours the landlord’s assistant collects $40 from 53 different applications to help cover the cost of background and credit check. Landlord gets the $2140 at the end of the day and has a brilliant idea. I should just hold an open house once a month and make more than I can without actually renting the townhouse out to anyone.

    I definitely think landlords should publish their requirements before they take an application fee. I also still think landlords should get to pick. What if landlords had to refund the application fee of everyone that meets the published standards and wasn’t picked? The landlord would have to basically eat the cost of background and credit checks for looking for “the best one”.

    IMHO: There needs to be some middle ground but this law misses the mark.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Shawn,
      Interesting points you bring up. But here’s what I say about them …

      Case #1: If there are 20 applicants (not just interested people) for a property, maybe the rent should be raised. There is no inherent right to live in the most trendy area. Maybe that great couple needs to live further out. Plus, it costs landlords more to buy in those areas and to pay the property taxes, so the rent should reflect that. Maybe the city, by not approving new building, is contributing to the problem.

      Case #2: What you describe is fraud and is not a sustainable business model.

      • Shawn Loftis

        Case #1: I’m not saying they should get to live there. But they should be able to make an informed decision about the likely outcome of an application before they pay $80. What if they apply to 15 different rentals and come in 2nd every time? That’s $1200 wasted. If they know up front they have a 5% of getting accepted I’m ok with that because they are making an informed decision. It is when the applicant has no idea what the criteria are or likelihood of the outcome that I have a problem with collecting $80 per couple to apply.

        Case #2: Depends on intent. And there are several variations that aren’t. Some people collect 40 application fees before they start to review them. Sort the pile based on income and then accept the first application that comes back with good credit and criminal history. Do you think they return the other 35 applicants money? Or go ahead and run the checks on them too? Or pocket the money?

        It is these situations that get exploited that are going to cause more laws like this one.

  18. Robert Steele

    Texas HOA’s, at least in some of the cities around where I live, are changing their bylaws to require the landlord to obtain HOA approval for any tenant they want to accept.

    Fortunately the Texas legislature slapped this down by passing a law prohibiting HOAs from having this requirement.

    Funny enough but HOAs are still adding this requirement in well after the law passed. I guess either their legal council is clueless or they figure that most landlords won’t find out.

  19. Chris Field

    Is it illegal in Seattle to have one of your screening requirements be garnishable income?

    Also if it is are jobs a protected class? I.e. You may have the income but your a drug dealer or a lawyer. Both of which are not protected classes.

    Just outthink these pin heads it’s not that hard.

  20. Max Householder

    Thanks for posting this article, Laura! The stupidity of government is always amazing, yet never surprising. If only they would get out of the way, both the consumer and producer would be far better off.

    As far as screening goes, what is to stop a landlord from adding a “likability quotient” or some other arbitrary, judgement-based criteria to their published list? Last I checked “jerks” and “nice people” weren’t protected classes. You could simply say I require I minimum likability score of 6 and then score every applicant a 5 right off the bat, since you have nothing to go on, thus meaning nobody ever meets the minimum criteria. Once you get enough applications to make an informed choice then schedule a showing or phone call with the applicant you want and well hey look at that, I kinda like them once I’ve met them, they’re a 7 now and thus the first person to meet the minimum criteria.

  21. Chris Falk

    Hi Laura. For what it’s worth, I communicated with a seasoned developer/investor in Seattle (city of) who owns some class B apartment complexes. He said that this ordinance is really nothing to get worked up about. He claims that the motivation behind it stems from concern about some landlords who signed master leases w/Amazon employees. Granted, this is his take and I have not read the ordinance word for word or spoken to any other contacts who own rental properties in the city. This is what he said in closing to me:
    “Again, this ordinance will have a minimal impact on us. In fact, the motivation for this ordinance came forward because several landlords had master leases in place for employees of Amazon, which served to preclude an open/free market access to a product, such as a rental resident.”

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Chris,
      Yes, this motivation excuse was brought up by another commenter here, Zorina. And I still say, “So what?” If this law will apply to all landlords, it doesn’t matter that it was “intended” to stop some sort of special deal for certain employees. That might be what the city council says, but there is definitely more to it.

      This ordinance is something to “get worked up about.” Why? Because of statements like this one, from Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance: “The policy means Seattle is taking a leadership role.”

      Landlords across the country should know what’s happening in Seattle and make sure it doesn’t happen in their towns!

    • Max Householder

      Funny that someone would see landlords being forced to lease on a first-come, first-serve basis as somehow promoting a free market. In a true free market, you would be able to offer (or not offer) your product or service to whoever you want. Laws like this are the antithesis of the free market.

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