Tenant Screening Forum 11 10 2011
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Tenant Screening Forum 11 10 2011

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Overview of contemporary tenant-screening problems in Washington. Given at Housing Access Forum in Seattle, Wash., on Nov. 10, 2011.

Overview of contemporary tenant-screening problems in Washington. Given at Housing Access Forum in Seattle, Wash., on Nov. 10, 2011.

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Tenant Screening Forum 11 10 2011 Tenant Screening Forum 11 10 2011 Presentation Transcript

  • Background Checkmates: Unfair & Abusive Tenant-Screening in Washington Access to Housing Forum Nov. 10, 2011 Seattle City Hall Eric Dunn, Staff Attorney Northwest Justice Project 401 Second Ave. S., Ste. 407 Seattle, Washington 98104 Tel. (206) 464-1519, ext. 234 [email_address]
    • A special type of credit report designed to assist a residential landlord in deciding whether to accept a rental applicant
    • Typical contents:
      • Financial credit report (with or without score)
      • Criminal background check
      • Civil litigation records check
      • Recommendation (approve/reject)
    What is a “tenant-screening report?”
  • Where do tenant-screening reports come from?
    • “ Specialty consumer reporting agencies” prepare and transmit reports to landlords
      • Approximately 650 in USA ( NY Times, 11/26/2006)
    • No established industry standards
      • No meaningful regulation by gov’t agency
      • FCRA provides some regulations on how reports are prepared, what they may contain
      • But, FCRA is not designed for housing context
  • Some tenant-screening companies active in Washington…
    • Yes, but not until after you have already applied for housing.
    • The FCRA only requires screening companies to show you the information they already have on file about you.
      • Tenant-screening companies ordinarily prepare reports only for landlords.
      • Very few screening companies will prepare a report for a consumer who orders it
    Can I see what’s in my tenant-screening report?
  • What if there is a mistake on my tenant-screening report?
    • Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act , a tenant-screening company has 30 days to “reinvestigate” information that is disputed by a consumer
      • Disputed information must be deleted or corrected unless verified on reinvestigation
    • Nothing prevents a landlord from renting the premises out to another person while a consumer dispute is pending
  • Can’t I just explain the problem to the landlord?
    • Yes, but:
      • Under current law, a landlord does not have to tell you why your application was denied
      • The landlord does not have to consider your explanation or evidence
  • Categorical Exclusions
    • “ It is the policy of 99 percent of our customers in New York to flat out reject anybody with a landlord-tenant record, no matter what the reason is and no matter what the outcome is, because if their dispute has escalated to going to court, an owner will view them as a pain,” said Jake Harrington, a founder of On-Site.com…”
    • -- New York Times, Nov. 26, 2006
  • If I correct an error on my tenant-screening report with one company, will that correction be reported to the other screening companies?
    • No. To prevent the error from recurring, you may have to contact other screening companies separately.
    • Remember, ~ 650 operate in the USA.
  • Where do tenant-screeners get their information (from huh)?
    • Other consumer reporting agencies
      • Credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion)
      • Criminal records (ChoicePoint, USIS, et al.)
    • Public records
      • Law enforcement databases
      • Judicial records systems
      • Other government records
    • Interviews with past landlords, others
    • Miscellaneous sources
  • Are errors common in tenant-screening reports?
    • 79% of “Big 3” credit reports have errors, about ¼ of which are significant enough to result in an improper denial of credit
      • Mistakes Do Happen: A Look at Errors in Consumer Credit Reports, U.S. PIRG: The Federation of State PIRGS (2004)
    • Tenant-screening reports that are derived from credit reports will generally replicate the errors in the underlying source
    • Accurate but unfair information can be equalluy damaging but is not prohibited
  • What kinds of information do screening companies use public records for?
    • Criminal records
    • Civil Litigation records
      • Evictions (most common)
      • Bankruptcy/Foreclosure/Collections
      • Tenant-plaintiff (sec. dep., repair, discrimination)
      • Protection orders (DV, anti-harassment, etc.)
  • Are public records accurate?
    • Public records are often created for some purpose other than serving as de facto consumer reports.
    • Even when technically accurate, public records are seldom complete and up-to-date
    • Public records systems often lack procedures for correcting or removing harmful information.
  • SCOMIS: A virtual blacklist Washington’s “SCOMIS” search result screen
  • I was sued for eviction but I won my case. That won’t affect my rental opportunities, right?
    • Response to dispute letter sent on behalf of rental applicants who had been turned-down due to a record of an eviction suit they had won on the merits.
  • I’ve never had a problem with a landlord. How does this affect me?
    • Most rights belonging to tenants can only be enforced through litigation
    • Tenants are chilled from litigating meritorious claims and defenses because they are blacklisted for simply appearing in court
    • Landlords can (and do) exploit this situation by taking illegal actions against tenants
  • Tenant-Screening Reports
  • Tenant-Screening: Costs
    • Tenant-screening reports typically cost about $30-$75 per adult applicant
    • State law allows landlords to pass 100% of their screening costs on to applicants
    • Applicants who are turned-down must usually pay screening fees over again to apply elsewhere, even though the landlord will use the fees to purchase reports that contain substantially identical information
  • What can be done?
    • Improve advance access to reports
      • Enable consumers to dispute inaccurate or incomplete information before they apply for housing
    • Curb reporting that conflicts with public policy
      • Evictions where tenant prevails, tenant-plaintiff litigation
      • DV, other victim-protection records
    • Greater controls on public records
      • Consumers should be able to correct, update
    • Bring screening costs under control
      • Limit fees or only allow fees when tenancy is offered
      • Allow reusable “portable” screening reports