In downtown Seattle, up on the second floor of City Hall, is a liberal city council that takes pride in passing first-in-the-nation laws to protect the environment, renters, and civil rights. Over on the other side of Lake Washington, just nine miles away from City Hall, is a nondescript office park that houses a group of libertarian lawyers who take pride in finding ways to take those laws down.
One of those libertarian lawyers, Ethan Blevins, casts the Seattle City Council as "a group of people with really good intentions who think that government is the great panacea for all our problems."
With his subdued manner, green sweater vest, rectangular wire-rim glasses, and goatee, Blevins looks like a suburban churchgoer. (And, in fact, he is. He volunteers at his Mormon church in Bellevue.) In his free time, he writes poetry and fiction, and he says he just finished a fantasy novel that he'll start shopping to agents next month.
In his day job, he proudly works for a Sacramento-based conservative group called the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF). It has six offices across the country, including the one that employs Blevins—just off Highway 520 in Bellevue, across the street from a lot holding rentable construction equipment.
In recent years, PLF has taken on cases ranging from the city of San Juan Capistrano, California's ban on "for sale" signs in cars (a violation of car owners' free-speech rights, PLF argued) to federal rules about which bodies of water should be protected by the Clean Water Act (PLF argued that the Obama administration's expanded protection rules were a "power grab"). In Seattle last year, the group helped invalidate part of a city law that allowed garbage collectors to look inside your trash to make sure you were separating your waste and compost correctly. Now PLF is going after one of Seattle's newest housing laws—and looks poised to possibly take on another.
Blevins folds his hands and laughs as he offers his assessment of the Seattle City Council's belief that government is a panacea. "As you might guess from our general political philosophy," he says, "we tend to think that's not the case."
The Pacific Legal Foundation was born in the days of Governor Ronald Reagan, at a time when the future president had just finished passing stricter eligibility requirements for California's welfare program. According to PLF, Reagan and an adviser wondered why there were public-interest law groups representing people who benefited from welfare programs but nobody "who represents the public interest of taxpayers and other Americans in efficient, limited constitutional government." So some of the governor's staffers formed PLF.
Today, the nonprofit relies on between $10 million and $15 million a year in individual donations and grants, according to recent tax filings. That's about twice as much as the annual donations to Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit that's considering joining the City of Seattle in defending a new housing law against a PLF lawsuit. And it's about 28 times the annual donations to the Tenants Union of Washington State, which educates and organizes renters. PLF would not disclose its biggest donors to The Stranger, and no information about its donor base could be gleaned from the organization's publicly available tax documents. The foundation did claim it doesn't receive any donations from the Koch brothers and that nearly 90 percent of its contributions come from people and groups that give less than $1,000.
In 2015, PLF sued to block part of a Seattle law that passed the city council unanimously and allowed garbage inspectors to look through people's trash to make sure they were composting food waste. PLF branded its campaign against the law with the phrase "Stop City Snooping."
They won the case, and Seattle never appealed. Though privacy was a central talking point in that fight, and is a common fixation of libertarians in general, it's actually not a core focus for PLF. (The organization hasn't shown any interest, for example, in taking on the Tacoma Police Department's use of a Stingray device to monitor cell phones or the Seattle Police Department's use of software to track social-media posts. PLF has no position on those programs, Blevins said, or on how police departments handle data collected from body cameras, one of the hottest ongoing privacy debates in Seattle and cities across the country.) Instead, PLF has focused on defending property owners and landlords.
With mixed results, they've challenged the federal government's ability to set aside land in Louisiana as a "critical habitat" for the dusky gopher frog, San Francisco's requirements that landlords pay tenants relocation assistance, and San Jose's requirement that residential developers set aside some of their new developments for housing that's affordable to people making less than 110 percent of a neighborhood's median income. It's that property-owner-centered focus that puts them on their newfound collision course with Seattle, a rapidly growing city where residents are demanding more rights for tenants and more sacrifices from developers.
On March 9, PLF filed suit in King County Superior Court over Seattle's so-called "first in time" rule. The law, passed in August and believed to be the first of its kind in the country, requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant who applies. The law includes limited exemptions for people who rent out a room or backyard cottage at the house where they also live. It also contains exemptions for people who set aside units for "vulnerable populations." But beyond those specific cases, it will otherwise apply to all landlords in the city. The point is to combat unconscious bias—"the kind of discrimination that occurs and people don't even realize it's happening," as Council Member Lisa Herbold, who sponsored the law, described it last year. The law passed the council 9–0.
Research and legal precedent are increasingly recognizing the existence of implicit bias. In a landmark housing-discrimination case in 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that housing policies could be discriminatory even if they're not intended to be, upholding what's known as the disparate impact doctrine. In the process, the court acknowledged the existence of "unconscious prejudices and disguised animus."
The City of Seattle already has laws on the books outlawing explicit discrimination, like treating tenants differently based on their race, and it regularly finds violations of those laws. It's harder to regulate unconscious bias, though. Landlords may not recognize their own prejudices, and tenants who are discriminated against may not realize it's happening, either.
"If a white woman and a black woman apply to rent an apartment, and the landlord doesn't want to rent to the black woman... the black woman never knows that's the reason she didn't get the apartment," says Merf Ehman, deputy director at Columbia Legal Services. "How do we get at that? How do we end that kind of discrimination?"
When the new law takes effect in July, the city plans to enforce it through testing in which city contractors pose as certain types of prospective renters. Landlords found to be violating the law could be required to pay up to $11,000, but exact amounts depend on the specifics of the case and the discretion of the city's Office for Civil Rights. An OCR spokesperson said landlords would more likely pay around $850 per violation.
To PLF's Blevins, all of this is tantamount to assuming all landlords are guilty of something the city can't even prove.
"We've lived in a nation that believes in a presumption of innocence and believes that it would be better to let 10 guilty people go free than for one innocent person to suffer," he says. "This is essentially the opposite... this law is willing to capture innocents and guilties alike."
Blevins goes even further, arguing the law also amounts to a sort of thought policing. "[The city is saying], 'We know what you're thinking. It's bad. We're going to prohibit you from exercising your choice based on those thoughts,'" Blevins says. "I think that's a disturbing notion." ("We're not regulating thoughts," Herbold counters. "We're regulating a process.")
In its suit against the city, PLF argues that when it comes to landlords, the rule ends up taking away their constitutionally protected property rights. The case cites a few particularly sympathetic landlords, including an artist who says she lives off the $1,300 a month she makes renting out a house she owns in West Seattle, and a couple who lives with their children in one unit of a triplex and rents out the other two units. Another family cited in the case says they put the money they make off a six-unit apartment building in Seattle toward their kids' college fund.
Kelly Lyles, the artist, cites her status as a single woman to argue she should be able to decide which qualified applicant to rent to. "Women are taught from childhood to 'trust our gut,'" she says in a statement. "I'm now denied that option."
PLF also argues the law will hurt the people it's intended to help, who may not have the means to get their application in right away. Detractors also brought this up when the council approved the law. Herbold points out that the law has a provision allowing people who need language or disability assistance to ask for extra time to apply. "This may not be the removal of all barriers, but it's the removal of one barrier," she says.
To find their clients, PLF got help from the Rental Housing Association of Washington, a reliable voice in city hall and the state legislature against tenant protections, and the RHA celebrated the firm's suit, describing the "first-in-time rule" as "a heavy-handed" law that will "hurt small-time landlords and those who already struggle to find housing."
PLF isn't just coming for the Seattle City Council. They could take on Mayor Ed Murray, too.
The group is now raising legal questions about the cornerstone of Murray's plan for addressing housing affordability in Seattle: a requirement that some new construction include affordable housing.
That program, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, lays out a plan for the city to upzone certain neighborhoods like downtown and the University District and then, in exchange for allowing taller buildings, require developers to set aside parts of those buildings for affordable housing or pay into a fund to build affordable housing in other parts of the city. For the last several years, as city leaders have debated this policy, an undercurrent of the conversation has been a debate about whether it's legal. Does the state really have the ability to require this of developers? When, in 2015, Murray's affordable housing committee proposed the idea, a key tenet of their plan was the so-called "grand bargain." If the city implemented affordability requirements in a certain way, the bargain said, a group of developers would promise not to sue.
But not every developer agreed with the bargain—and neither does the PLF.
In a March 17 letter to Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes, the firm wrote that requiring developers to build or pay for affordable housing is illegal because the city cannot prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the developers building new housing and the city's affordability crisis. Instead, PLF writes, new development is "helping to lower prices."
The affordability requirements, Blevins writes, represent an "effort to force developers to solve an affordability problem that they did not create."
PLF has not yet filed a suit about this, but Blevins wrote to Holmes that the city should reconsider the program "to avoid a legal challenge under the federal and state constitutions."
Holmes and the lawyers in his office were hesitant to wade into the legal arguments over Murray's program in case they end up in court over the issue. But they said they aren't surprised by any of PLF's arguments and are confident in their case. Roger Wynne, the lawyer who leads land-use work in the city attorney's office, described the libertarians at PLF as "true land-use geeks... very effective advocates, and good lawyers"
Inside PLF's Bellevue office, Blevins sits across from me at a long wooden conference-room table, calmly equating landlord regulations to the American justice system's presumption of innocence. Blevins is the only lawyer in the office full-time. Two others split their time between the office and working from home. As a result, outside the room we're in, the low-rent-looking office space is silent.
Blevins came to his own "libertarian with a small l" politics growing up in Wyoming before attending law school at Duke. He's the child of an author and a mother who was a "big follower of Ayn Rand, a famous libertarian philosopher." (He says this as if I probably don't know who Rand is.)
I ask Blevins if he believes unconscious bias is real. "I think that it probably exists," he says. "I'm willing to concede that I myself may very well have unconscious biases that are operating without my knowledge."
Quickly, he corrects: "The bigger question," he says, "is whether that subconscious is something that can be subject to regulation or not... That's a broader question about the role that government should play in our lives. I think—I hope—most people are uncomfortable with the idea that the government presumes to know what we're thinking, even if we don't know it."