Will Washington Be The Second US State To Limit Love Letters?

An effort to ban possibly discriminatory homebuyer love letters fell short in the Washington State Legislature, but could come back next year.

A proposed law that would require real estate agents in Washington state to reject love letters containing discriminatory information appears set to fail, but supporters say they intend to try again.

The bill — the second of its kind after Oregon passed a ban on the notes between homebuyers and sellers last year — stalled in the Washington State Legislature after some progressive lawmakers expressed concerns that it could make it harder for some members of protected classes to secure a home, according to Nathan Gorton, government affairs director for the Washington Association of Realtors. 

“It was a priority for us, and just one we couldn’t get across the finish line,” Gorton told Inman this week.

This year, Washington lawmakers met for a shorter, 60-day session, which left little time to resolve these concerns while also prioritizing bigger proposals on transportation and other topics, Gorton said.

“Rather than just try to jam it through, especially a topic like this, everybody agreed to take a deep breath, do a little work in the interim, and come back and talk a little bit more,” Gorton said.

The state’s legislative session ends today.

Gorton’s organization was the lead group behind the bill, he said. 

Modeled in part after Oregon’s law, which prohibited seller’s agents from passing love letters to their clients altogether, the Washington proposal took a narrower approach to the issue. 

Rather than ban all love letters, the Washington bill would have restricted agents from passing on “unfair practice letters.” If the contents of a love letter could be reasonably interpreted as disclosing a buyer’s race, class or other characteristic in a way that could harm other buyers from groups protected by fair housing laws, then an agent would be forbidden from passing that note along.

The proposal was intended to address a tension between federal fair housing law — which forbids selling a home based on race, gender, family situation or other characteristics — and an agent’s obligation in Washington to pass on all similar materials.

“In Washington state, a broker has no choice on forwarding love letters from the buyer to the seller, even if it’s a Fair Housing Act violation,” Gorton said. “There’s no choice. And that’s bad policy.”

The bill was constructed more narrowly than Oregon’s for a reason, Gorton said. That law faced a First Amendment challenge, and the U.S. district judge presiding over the case has suspended its enforcement for now, arguing that it could have been more tailored to achieve its objective without significantly limiting non-discriminatory speech at the same time.

“I guess that’s the benefit of being the second in the nation of doing something, is you can look at what the first in the nation did and decide if you like their approach or not,” Gorton said.

Gorton was told the bill’s fate this year was determined in private conversations within the House Democratic caucus. Some progressive members cited stories of members of protected classes using love letters to get a leg up in a home transaction.

But for the bill’s supporters, the concern of discrimination against protected groups outweighs these concerns, Gorton said.

“Again, unfortunately, the history of love letters is to hurt people in protected classes, or that’s the general outcome,” Gorton said. “In a short session, when you have a big concern like that come up, it’s just hard to move a bill, and especially around something this sensitive.”

Next year, the Legislature will meet for a longer session of 105 days, when it will discuss the budget and other issues. The Washington Association of Realtors plans to raise this issue again, Gorton said.

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