Rental discrimination is alive and well in oh-so liberal Seattle | KUOW News and Information

Rental discrimination is alive and well in oh-so liberal Seattle

Feb 23, 2017

When people of color try to rent housing in Seattle, they’re treated differently from white people.

The Seattle Office of Civil Rights confirmed this hunch in 2016, when the city compared reports from white housing testers and black housing testers. In over 60 percent of cases, there was some evidence of bias, said Patricia Lally, director of the Seattle Office of Civil Rights.

Now the office says there’s a growing trend of housing discrimination against Muslims.

But landlords may not realize that they're discriminating against people of color; Lally says housing discrimination in Seattle is insidious.

“In the City of Seattle, we don't acknowledge our bias and very often a landlord may not even be conscious of their implicit bias,” Lally said.

She said her office does trainings to educate landlords about the law, but renters need to be aware as well.

“An African-American family might be told about the need for their credit history. They may be told that they have to do a criminal history background check,” Lally said.

That’s okay if every prospective renter gets the same treatment. It’s a problem if they don’t. 

“How would they know that the landlord did not show them all of the units that were available? They may walk away with disappointment,” Lally said. “They may walk away with suspicion. But it typically isn't enough for that person to come into our office. That's why we do testing.”

Jasmin Samy, with the Seattle chapter of the Council  for American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, said she has also noticed that Muslims are experiencing more housing discrimination. In some cases, she said the discrimination has gone on for years, but people are reluctant to come forward.

Samy explained a Muslim renter’s thinking: “‘We don't want trouble. We found a house. It's a good rent. What if the manager is giving me a hard time because of my parking spot, or if they're being mean to me? I just want to live.’”

Of the nearly 200 civil rights cases investigated by the city each year, more than 40 percent involve housing. Nearly all settle, and in some cases the victim receives a monetary award.

For a landlord, being investigated for discrimination can be an expensive problem. Sean Martin of the Rental Housing Association of Washington said it’s critical for rental property owners to understand the law and adhere to it.

“A complaint alone, even if it proves to be unfounded, you're looking at thousands of dollars in legal costs just to defend your good name,” Martin said. “Always being proactive in preventing any problems coming up in the first place is definitely the best way to go. “

Martin said his association works closely with the city’s Office of Civil Rights to provide training for rental property owners.

Because when landlords get dinged, they’re often surprised, chagrined and interested in what they can do to make their application process fair.

It’s a start, Lally said. But moving the needle on discrimination may require more than laws.

“We've had some of these laws on the books for many, many years,” she said. “And yet discrimination continues in the most progressive city in America.”