So you found the perfect apartment – great location, reasonable rent, allows pets. You submit your rental application, pay the application fee, and start dreaming of move-in day. Then you get the dreaded call or email that your application was rejected. What happened?
In most cases, the landlord ran a background check on you through a tenant screening company. These companies provide reports to landlords containing information like your credit history, eviction records, and criminal records. Landlords rely heavily on these reports in deciding whether to accept applicants.
Unfortunately, a new report from the National Consumer Law Center reveals major problems with tenant screening that can unfairly prevent renters from getting housing. As an experienced law firm fighting for consumer rights, we want to highlight the key issues renters should understand about tenant screening.
Heavy Reliance on Scores and Recommendations
Many tenant screening companies provide landlords with a score or recommendation about whether to accept or reject an applicant. Shockingly, the NCLC report found that landlords often make rental decisions based solely on this score. They don’t even look at the underlying credit, eviction, and criminal records data that the score is based on!
This practice creates several big problems:
- You could get rejected over an error or misleading information that the landlord never reviews. The screening score could be including criminal or eviction records that belong to a different person with a similar name. Or criminal charges that were ultimately dropped. Or eviction cases where you actually prevailed against the landlord. If the landlord only looks at the score, they’ll never know.
- It makes it much harder for renters to find out precisely why they were denied housing. The tenant screening company may refuse to provide details, claiming the landlord made the decision based on the score alone. The landlord in turn claims they just relied on the company’s recommendation. Renters get caught in the middle without clear reasons for the denial.
- Over-reliance on scores allows tenant screening companies to shroud their practices in secrecy. They won’t reveal details about how the scores are calculated or what data is fed into them. There’s no transparency for renters.
- Automated scoring systems can actually reinforce racial biases and disparate impacts, even though they appear neutral on the surface. The algorithms may incorporate factors that disproportionately harm people of color.
- Without reviewing the underlying records, landlords miss out on critical context and mitigating circumstances. A single score doesn’t tell the whole story.
Renters have a right to know the reasons we are denied housing. Landlords should be required to look beyond the mechanized score and make individualized decisions based on accurate data. No one should be rejected based on errors or lack of information.
Lack of Transparency About Criteria
Landlords usually don’t tell applicants in advance what their rental criteria are. You have no way to know if you’ll be rejected for credit score, eviction records, criminal history, or some other reason.
This hurts renters in two ways:
- You may waste an application fee when you had no chance of approval based on the landlord’s undisclosed requirements. Tenant screening fees often cost $40 or more per applicant. If the landlord rejects anyone with an eviction record, and you have an old eviction, that’s money down the drain.
- If your application gets rejected, you’re left playing guessing games about what criteria you failed to meet. The landlord probably won’t explain the reasons without being pushed. Was it something in your criminal history? Your credit score? Not enough rental history? It’s like trying to pass a test without knowing the subject matter.
Some jurisdictions are starting to require landlords to disclose their tenant selection policies upfront. But compliance remains spotty so far. Renters shouldn’t have to pay and apply just to find out we’re ineligible under the landlord’s unspoken rules. Disclosure should be mandatory everywhere to bring more transparency into what remains a very opaque process.
Failure to Consider Vital Context
Tenant screening reports often contain barebones information without context. For example, you may have:
- An old eviction record from five years ago when you fell behind on rent right after losing a job.
- A criminal charge from your early 20s that ultimately got dismissed and expunged from your record.
- Medical debt that went to collections because of outrageous emergency room bills.
- A bankruptcy from a decade ago when your marriage fell apart.
These types of scenarios are more common than you might think. But tenant screening reports present them without any background or explanation.
As a result, most landlords make no effort to consider mitigating factors or additional context. They see a black mark on your report and automatically reject you, no questions asked.
Their logic is that any negative item in your past makes you an unreliable tenant today. But that’s simply not true. Research shows that old evictions and convictions, settled debts, dismissed charges, and bankruptcies from years ago have little bearing on whether someone can pay rent reliably today.
Life brings good times and tough times for all of us. Someone who fell behind on rent five years ago because of a job loss could now have a stable career. The vulnerabilities of youth don’t necessarily indicate how someone will handle their affairs in adulthood.
We need reforms to stop landlords from judging applicants only on the presence of any past negative record. Legislation should require consideration of mitigating circumstances. Tenant screening policies must reflect what the research shows about the limited predictive value of old debts, evictions, cases without merits, and similar records.
Of course, landlords want reassurance they are renting to responsible tenants who will pay on time. But they can simply look at recent evidence like pay stubs, tax returns, and bank statements to verify current income. Credit reports should focus on active accounts and recent payment history rather than dredging up discontinued debts from eons ago.
Ineffective Disputes of Errors
What if your tenant screening report contains inaccurate or misleading information? Perhaps:
- It includes an eviction record that belongs to a different person with the same name.
- A criminal conviction shows up even though the charges were dropped.
- An old unpaid debt is still reported after you already paid it years ago.
- The report misses key details about the outcome of an eviction case.
Federal law gives you the right to dispute errors with tenant screening companies and credit bureaus. But according to the NCLC report, disputes are mostly futile because landlords ignore them and rent to another applicant. Even if you get the error fixed after the fact, you’ve probably already lost your shot at renting that unit. The dispute process is slow compared to the fast pace of the rental market.
For disputes to work, changes are needed:
- Landlords should be required to at least consider disputed applications instead of automatically rejecting them.
- Disputes need to be resolved faster, say within 7 days instead of the current 30 days.
- Tenant screening companies should face stiffer penalties when they fail to correct serious errors.
- Renters who lose out on housing due to a screening error should get compensation to cover costs of forced moves or temporary lodging.
Of course, preventing inaccurate information upfront is ideal. Tenant screening companies must improve procedures and use all identifying information—not just names—to match records correctly. They should better vet their data sources to avoid reporting sealed, expunged or outdated records. And they shouldn’t keep dragging up the same incident just because it appears in multiple databases.
Unjust Barriers for People of Color
There are also larger issues of systemic racism connected to tenant screening. Black and Latino renters are more likely to have:
- Eviction records – An ACLU study found landlords file evictions against Black renters at double the rate of white renters in several states.
- Lower credit scores – Decades of housing and employment discrimination are baked into the credit scoring algorithms. The average Black household credit score trails the white household average by 70-85 points.
- Criminal records – Black and Latino individuals face higher arrest and incarceration rates than white people charged with similar offenses.
So Black and Latino renters bear the brunt of landlords’ reliance on flawed screening reports. Housing providers claim they are just objectively applying neutral criteria. But by rigidly adhering to credit scores, criminal records, and other data laced with discrimination, they actually entrench racism.
To interrupt this cycle, we need legal reforms that address disparate racial impacts. Blanket bans on applicants with any criminal or eviction record must end. Tenant screening policies should weigh only recent and severe offenses that directly compromise safety or property. Debt, bankruptcies and other financial records unrelated to rent payment should be excluded.
More broadly, our society must reckon with the troubled legacy of segregation, mass incarceration, predatory lending, and other systems that constructed centuries of racial inequity. Healing deep wounds takes time and commitment from all people of conscience.
Reform Is Needed
The NCLC’s report on tenant screening exposes serious problems that arbitrarily deny too many people the chance at safe, affordable housing. We all want to live in communities made stronger through diversity, compassion and justice. So reforms are needed to ensure fair access for every renter.
The report calls for legal changes like:
- Prohibiting use of outdated or irrelevant records – Landlords should not be able to reject applicants based on old criminal convictions, arrests without convictions, evictions older than 3-5 years, or civil judgments/debts more than 7 years old.
- Requiring individualized assessment – Landlords must make case-by-case determinations focused on significant risk to residents and property. They should consider mitigating circumstances instead of blanket bans.
- Mandating transparency – Landlords should disclose tenant selection policies upfront and provide applicant-specific reasons for any denial.
- Restricting use of credit histories – Given racial disparities and lack of evidence credit predicts rent payment, credit records should be excluded from tenant screening.
- Establishing accuracy standards for screening companies – Stringent procedures and audits are needed to maximize accuracy and completeness. Disputes must be resolved faster.
- Providing right to counsel for tenants – Legal help navigating tenant screening issues should be available through housing counselors and legal aid attorneys.
We join the NCLC in calling on lawmakers to enact these and other reforms. The FTC, CFPB and HUD also have roles to play in better oversight and enforcement.
As renters, we must advocate for our right to ethical and non-discriminatory tenant screening. Meet with your representatives. Organize other impacted tenants. Share your stories to put a human face on harm caused by current screening practices. You have more power than you think when we unite and persist.
Don’t get screened out of a home due to a number defined by systemic inequity. If you face housing discrimination, reach out to experienced attorneys who can advise you on your rights and options. With the affordable housing crisis, we can’t allow flawed tenant screening to unjustly deny people access to rentals. Let’s speak truth, demand change, and create a just housing system where everyone can thrive.
Take Action Now
If you believe you have been unjustly denied housing based on a tenant screening report, don’t just accept it. Fight back against inaccurate and unethical screening practices. Contact our office today to discuss your situation and legal options. Our experienced team can review your screening report, identify any errors or omissions, and advocate on your behalf. We will demand that landlords comply with the law by fairly evaluating applicants as individuals.
Getting rejected when you know you’d be a great tenant is beyond frustrating. But you don’t have to tolerate discrimination or flawed processes. Call or email us now to schedule a free consultation. There is power in knowing your rights. With committed advocates by your side, we can hold negligent landlords and tenant screening companies accountable. Justice may take persistence, but every story and life matters. You deserve to be judged on your merits alone, not mistaken data or systemic barriers. Our door is open – let’s connect and chart a path forward.