When a Fair Chance Becomes an Unfair Burden

Crossposted at Fix Homelessness

Prior to 2018, one affordable housing apartment in downtown Seattle received mostly positive reviews online from its residents. In the years following, negative reviews increased dramatically, with residents complaining about violent neighbors, rampant drug use, and the ground being regularly covered with needles and human feces. A nineteen-year-old resident claimed she heard a neighbor threaten to slit someone’s throat, and another recommended that future tenants “carry a weapon and watch your back.” Not limited to this property, reviews at similar apartments across Seattle tell residents to “carry something to protect you cause the stairwells are unpredictable,” and warn of “crime, drugs, and the terrible smell of urine.”

In 2019, a guest was stabbed in the chest by a resident. A 70-year-old resident recognized the changes occurring over his five years at the property. He told staff that the “good people” were leaving the building, and he no longer knew who lived on his floor anymore. One woman who had lived in the building since 2004, under multiple ownerships, left because it no longer felt safe.

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) decided in 2021 that at least three officers had to be present at responses to the property. February Police dispatch data indicates that police made over 1,300 responses to the roughly four-by-six block zone around the property in February. The Seattle Fire Department has already been dispatched there 25 times this year. Most are medic and aid responses.

This housing community is far from alone in dealing with an influx of safety challenges. In Seattle, fentanyl use has skyrocketed after hard drug use was decriminalized, and the police force has taken major staffing hits. But there is no doubt that for housing communities across the city, a law prohibiting criminal background checks has had a devastating impact. In 2018, Seattle passed the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance. Despite the name, the ordinance has had unfair consequences on tenants and landlords. Prior to the ordinance, management at the property described above ran background checks for criminal history on applicants to determine if they posed a meaningful risk to other residents. No longer allowed to perform these checks, management now learns about the extensive criminal histories of residents only as they are being arrested at the property by police.

This housing community now pays almost $80,000 a year to monitor over a quarter-million-dollars worth of security cameras in their building. The cost of on-site security staff jumped from $2,000 to over $14,000 a month. Still, residents say they feel unsafe. The impact is economic, cash flow for the property dropped 400% in the years following the ordinance, but it is also communal. The bottom line is clear: bad players have a dramatic negative affect on a community, even on entire neighborhoods and cities.

There is nothing fair about a nineteen-year-old girl being forced to live in fear because of misguided city policies. And while everyone should have a fair chance at living in a place of their own choosing, that opportunity should not extend to creating an unsafe environment for others. Criminal background checks are a commonsense way to prevent that harm before it happens.

Caitlyn Axe

Program Coordinator, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Caitlyn Axe is program coordinator for Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty. Her work has centered on government fiscal accountability, political rhetoric, and addiction with a focus on human dignity ethics. Caitlyn is a graduate of the University of Washington, has interned for a political advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., and has participated in the Vita Institute at the University of Notre Dame. She is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, has contributed at the Federalist, and has made local and national media appearances.