Seattle’s mandatory rental inspection law challenged in lawsuit

A class-action complaint claims it violates privacy rights

A class-action complaint filed this week in Seattle argues that
the city’s rental inspection program, a proactive system meant to
catch violations, violates constitutional rights to privacy.

The complaint, filed by lawyers from the public interest law
firm Institute for Justice (IFJ) on Tuesday, argues the city’s
Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance violates the privacy
enshrined in the U.S. and Washington constitutions, specifically
Article I, § 7, which states that “No person shall be disturbed
in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of
law.” Inspectors should be required to get a warrant or a
tenant’s consent to enter a private residence.

Run through the city’s Department of Construction and
Inspections (DPCI), the system cycles through the city’s entire
rental stock every 10 years, checking units in all rental buildings
at random. Inspectors in the program do not obtain warrants, or
require a suspicion of wrongdoing or violations; they have the
authority to enter and check for violations, using a 12-page
checklist when examining rooms, and check out the rental
property’s bathrooms, bedrooms, sinks, bathtub, and kitchens.

According to Dan Nolpe, spokesman for the Seattle City
Attorney’s Office, speaking on behalf of the DPCI, this was the
first legal complaint the city has received about the issue since
the law establishing the new inspection system was passed in 2012.
While they haven’t fully processed the complaint, they plan to
vigorously contest.

“We intend to defend this law meant to ensure the habitability
of rental properties for Seattle’s tenants,” says Nolpe.


Institute for Justice Plaintiff Keena Been. “It creates a lot of
unnecessary tension, and if the city fees like forcing its way into
my apartment, I wish they would deal with me directly.”
Inspection or intrusion?

When
Council Bill 117569
was passed unanimously by the City Council
in 2012, with a 5-0 vote, it was
hailed by council members
as a way to improve the conditions in
the city’s substandard housing and help renters, especially
seniors. There was a fear that renters, afraid of losing their
homes, would be reluctant to complaining about a landlord for fear
of retribution. Both tenant groups and landlord groups had been
consulted during multiple stakeholder meetings to craft the final
regulations. The system went into effect beginning in 2015.

According to lawyers with the Institute for Justice, they began
pursuing the lawsuit after landlords with tenants who were worried
about their privacy being violated through this program reached out
to them. Renters Matthew Bentley, Wesley Williams, and Joseph
Briere—all plaintiffs in the suit—found out earlier this year
that their units were being inspected and refused. Their landlords,
Sarah Pynchon and William Shadboldt, were put in the position of
somehow having to coerce them to allow inspectors in or accrue a
$500 fine every day the inspectors were denied the opportunity to
enter.

“A lot of landlords who didn’t wish to be sort of the
instrumentality of the city’s violation of people’s
constitutional rights,” says attorney William Maurer.

Initially, Seattle’s inspection system had an option for a
private inspector who would examine the rental apartment and then
tell the landlord that it failed. By not directly informing the
city, the inspector wasn’t an agent of the government, or
violating privacy, according to Maurer. However, the system has
changed; now, the private inspectors report directly to the city if
the unit passed or failed, constituting a state action and,
according to the suit, a privacy violation.

Keena Been, another plaintiff who joined the suit, feels that
the city’s have dramatically overreached with the automatic
inspection program.

“I think that it’s very unfair, particularly for the
relationship between landlords and tenants,” she says. “It
creates a lot of unnecessary tension, and if the city fees like
forcing its way into my apartment, I wish they would deal with me
directly.”

The 28-year-old communications professional, who works at a
Seattle startup and lives in Eastlake, hasn’t been directly
impacted by the program. But when she heard about it from her
landlord, John B. Heiderich, another plaintiff, she decided to join
the lawsuit. She feels that the program violates her right to
privacy; consider how an immigrant or religious minority may feel
having a stranger working for their government enter their home
without a warrant.

“This is also something only applicable to renters, and not
property owners,” she says “It further and further degrades
renters rights, and treats them differently than a property
holder.”

Other cities have adopted similar laws

Seattle’s law is being challenged as more and more cities
adopt similar, proactive programs to help improve rental
inspections. Detroit and Syracuse, New York, have recently passed
similar ordinances.

The plaintiffs feel the program should be less extreme, allowing
renters to ask for a government inspector, but retaining the right
to deny entry without a warrant. The issue of protecting tenant
rights is a complicated one; any program designed to solve it needs
to be more nuanced, they argue. Maurer sees a slippery slope: If
the city can conduct warrantless searches of property because of
concerns about the housing code, why couldn’t they do it for
private residences, or for violations of other kinds of code, such
as the criminal code?

The Seattle inspection program has also been subject of
complaints that it
doesn’t go far enough
. Landlords are given notice of
inspections, for instance, not fined if violations are fixed, and
only certain units in each building are inspected, which, as tenant
advocates point out, ignores that many common violations are rarely
contained in a single unit.

The IFJ suit isn’t challenging the ability to have such a
system, or to enter into a unit when they have suspicion of a
problem. The issue is that, as it’s written now, the statue
allows inspectors to enter a perfectly fine unit with no just
cause; there’s no intervening presence of a judicial officer to
judge if the city has a reason to enter someone’s home without
their consent.

“I don’t want to take away the rights of the city to inspect
the city,” says Been. “You should have an opportunity to raise
your hand and say ‘government inspector, come in and help me
out.’ I don’t want that right taken away from others; I just
want the right to say no.”

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
Seattle’s mandatory rental inspection law challenged in lawsuit