The local rental housing market is tight. If you’re a landlord in Bellingham right now, you will probably find yourself with many applicants for one living unit. Landlords often wonder on what grounds they can reject a potential tenant’s application.
You might have heard that tenant discrimination laws do not apply to you if you rent three or fewer single-family homes or an owner-occupied four-plex. This applies only in the context of the federal Fair Housing Act. Washington and Bellingham discrimination laws only exempt situations where the owner or lessor also lives in the same unit. BMC 10.48.040; RCW 49.60.222(7). For example, if you are renting a room in your house, you may disregard rental discrimination laws, but if you own a duplex and live in one half, you may not discriminate in renting out the other half.
Bellingham’s Fair Housing Ordinance prohibits accepting or rejecting tenants on the basis of “race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, marital status, age, familial status, disability, or sex.” BMC 10.48.030(A). It also prohibits asking questions on a rental application targeting these factors. BMC 10.48.030(E)(1).
Washington’s Law Against Discrimination prohibits discriminatory acts based on someone’s “sex, marital status, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, national origin, families with children status, honorably discharged veteran or military status, the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability, or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability.” RCW 49.60.222(1). Discriminatory acts include refusing to rent or negotiate, offering different terms, or refusing to negotiate.
It’s easier to run afoul of anti-discrimination laws than you might think. For example, maybe you would rather rent to a married couple than an unmarried couple because you’ve had previous tenants break up and fail to pay rent. Or, you’ve had problems with international students causing damage and found you’ve had no recourse when they return to their home countries, so you want to charge international students a bigger security deposit. While these actions might make good business sense, they would be prohibited under local and state law. You might be tempted to ask in an application whether the applicant has a service animal; this would be explicitly prohibited under Bellingham law and would be ill-advised under Washington law.
Many landlords will run background and credit checks on the applicants they are seriously considering. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Washington Residential Landlord Tenant Act contain very specific requirements about how those reports must be run. Generally, if you comply with the Washington law, you will also comply with the federal law. These laws apply in every residential rental circumstance, even if you live in the same dwelling.
RCW 59.18.257 and Chapter 19.182 RCW govern how to run a background or credit check on an applicant, and you should read these statutes carefully before doing any such check. In summary, it requires landlords to notify applicants in writing of what information will be accessed, what criteria the landlord is using to accept or reject applicants, which reporting company is being used (if any), and whether the landlord will accept a self-generated report. Landlords may only charge tenants for the actual cost of the report, and may only do so if they have provided the above information in writing. RCW 59.18.257 contains a form to use if based on the report a landlord takes any adverse action, including refusing to rent, requiring a co-signer, or requiring a larger security deposit. Applicants also have the right to a copy of the screening report and may challenge its accuracy.
Make sure you can articulate a non-discriminatory reason for choosing and rejecting all your rental applicants. For example, you may not accept a tenant just because she shares your religion, but you could accept her because you know her family personally from your religious community. Also, if you run a background or credit check, be sure to follow the procedures outlined in the above-described statutes. And finally, if you have any questions about your obligations as a landlord, consult a local attorney with experience in residential landlord-tenant law. Following these guidelines should ensure you start renting off on the right foot.
Disclaimer: This article and blog are intended to inform the reader of general legal principles applicable to the subject area. They are not intended to provide legal advice regarding specific problems or circumstances. Readers should consult with competent counsel with regard to specific situations.
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