The Washington State Attorney General is putting landlords across the state on notice: Your Craigslist ads don't have to say "no blacks allowed" to be discriminatory against African Americans—and if they are, the AG's office will find you.
In a string of cases filed in King and Pierce County Superior Courts between November and this week, Attorney General Bob Ferguson's office has fined five property management companies for advertising apartments with "no felons allowed" policies, arguing those policies disproportionately hurt African American renters.
Ferguson's office alleges such policies violate state and federal discrimination laws as well as the Washington Consumer Protection Act. Each company has been ordered to pay about $5,000 apiece, change their policies, and require employees attend non-discrimination training. In court documents, these companies have settled with the state but without admitting fault.
The five companies—two based in Seattle, two in Tacoma, and one in Kirkland—advertised apartments in Seattle, Tacoma, Burien, Auburn, and Federal Way, where they refused to accept tenants with felonies on their criminal records. To test the policies, staffers for the attorney general responded to the ads, saying they had a felony conviction on their record and asking if they could still apply. They were denied without any further questioning.
"[A] felony would be an automatic denial," one landlord replied, according to court documents.
That kind of denial amounts to discrimination, according to the AG's office. Because African Americans are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, banning people with felonies on their record disproportionately hurts African American people and violates state laws against discrimination. That argument is based on the principle of "disparate impact," which says housing policies are illegal if they have a discriminatory effect, even if they're not all-out bans on a certain race or gender. The issue has gained prominence in recent years thanks to a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision and a 2016 memo from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Even if a rental policy (like "no felons allowed") is not intended to have a discriminatory effect, HUD General Counsel Helen Kanovsky wrote last year, a landlord is violating the law if their policy has "an unjustified discriminatory effect."
To demonstrate disparate impact here, the AG's office compared Bureau of Justice statistics on Washington's incarcerated population with census data about the number of African Americans in Washington. While about 4 percent of the total state population is black, according to census data, black people make up 18 percent of prisoners in Washington.
To avoid discrimination, according to the AG's office, landlords must first consider what a felony conviction was for, how long ago it was, and what the applicant has done since before rejecting a potential tenant.
"It doesn’t mean you have to rent to every felon [who] applies," Ferguson says, "but you simply cannot have the blanket automatic denial. You have have to inquire to find out the nature of that felony."
Gregory Petrie, the attorney representing Pacific Crest Real Estate LLC—which advertised a $1,275 two-bedroom apartment in Burien with a "no felonies" policy last May—said the company has now changed its policies and employees have taken anti-discrimination training. Petrie says the company manages other properties without a “no felonies” rule but had recently taken over the property in Burien and “word didn’t get filtered down to change that.” (Lawyers representing the other implicated landlords did not return requests for comment from The Stranger by deadline.)
The cases are the work of the state attorney general's civil rights unit, which Ferguson formed in 2015. The offices focus on a variety of harassment and discrimination cases, and Ferguson says he believes this is the first time the AG's office has ever brought up these types of housing discrimination cases in Washington.
"I want the [rental housing] industry to know these cases are important to me," Ferguson told The Stranger. "They need to understand there are consequences if they are not following the law."