First in Time tenant-rights ordinance headed to the state Supreme Court

Last week the Washington State Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling on the city’s “First in time” ordinance that requires landlords to accept the first qualified tenant who applies for a vacant rental unit.

Back in March, a King County Superior Court judge ruled against the City of Seattle, finding that the ordinance violated landlords’ property rights, due process guarantees, and protections on commercial free speech. The city appealed directly to the state Supreme Court, skipping the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court could have chosen to direct the case back to the appeals court, but instead decided to hear it directly.

The stakes are doubly high for the city, as another court filing today points out. Rent-bidding site Rentberry has a pending lawsuit against the city challenging its moratorium on sited such as theirs. In the ordinance itself and in its filed briefs, the city argues that its primary reason for the moratorium is to assess the likelihood that rent-bidding sites violate the “first in time” ordinance. So if the Supreme Court upholds the lower-court ruling, the city’s defense against Rentberry also falls apart.

Briefs have been filed in the Supreme Court, but oral argument has not yet been scheduled. Expect the court to hear the case in early 2019



  1. I understand that the intent is to reduce conscious/unconscious bias by landlords – but the first-in-line policy has always confused me.

    Doesn’t it seem to discriminate against (often lower wage?) shift workers with fixed schedules? It seems that higher income workers (with job flexibility and things like ‘PTO’) could often have the advantage to ‘win’ the timing and get in line for rentals.

    Curious if the law also requires the 1st-in-line applicants to be physically present to ‘win’ the application – or if an agent acting on behalf of the applicant could be sent.

    If you allow agents – it opens doors to possible unintended side-effects, like Uber-for-waiting-in-rental-line type services (again – benefits the wealthy).

    However, if you disallow agents – you could end up unintentionally discriminating against mobility impaired, elderly – who may require assistance to find housing.

    If anything, requiring some type of lottery system for qualified applicants would seem more fair…

    1. Yes, the concern has been raised many times that the policy can favor those with flexible schedules, and those with easy Internet access who can invest the time looking for new listings.

      The law specifies that it must go to the first qualified candidate to complete an application. Depending on the landlord, those can be emailed in rather than delivered in person.

      The whole thing is indeed very complicated, without simple, obvious answers.

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