Problematic Tenant Screening Practices Restrict Access to Housing

A report released by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), “Digital Denials,” finds that harmful tenant screening practices are widespread and negatively impact low-income renters. Specifically, the report finds evidence that consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) sometimes fail to accurately report eviction or criminal records, that landlords often make leasing decisions based solely on the surface-level recommendation of a CRA, and that there is a lack of transparent communication between landlords and renters about application criteria. The report explores how problems with tenant screening processes actively prevent renters from securing adequate and affordable housing.

The report uses data from 253 responses to a 15-question survey administered to participants around the country. Responses came from legal services and nonprofit attorneys (69%), private attorneys (7%), housing counselors (12%), and other stakeholders in the field (12%). The questions, developed in coordination with the National Housing Law Project, deal with inaccuracies in the screening process, landlord reliance on CRA recommendations, transparency about screening criteria, the consideration of mitigating information, and several other issues. Respondents were asked to provide information based on experiences with both private and subsidized housing.

Across all respondents, 46% said that private landlords rarely or never reviewed underlying information on a screening report, relying solely on the score or recommendation provided by a CRA. Subsidized housing providers were shown to do the same, but only in 33% of cases. Similarly, respondents observed widespread use of credit scores to deny applicants across both private market and subsidized housing, even though credit scores are predictions of a borrower’s commitment to loan obligations and have no bearing on rental payments. Additionally, the “Fair Credit Reporting Act” requires landlords to provide a notice when they reject a renter because of a tenant screening or credit report, but over 80% of respondents reported this as a rare occurrence.

Sixty percent of respondents indicated that private landlords rarely or never provide information to applicants about criteria for selecting tenants. This lack of transparency is harmful, as tenants may spend money on applications for units that they were never eligible for in the first place. Sixty-eight percent of respondents indicated that subsidized housing providers usually or at least sometimes provided information on application criteria. This is likely because they are more heavily regulated and therefore legally required both to have detailed criteria and to disclose that information to potential applicants.

Nearly 80% of respondents agreed that landlords rarely or never considered personal hardships or extenuating circumstances as additional context for eviction records. Eighty-six percent of respondents reported that landlords’ most common response to disputed information on tenant screening reports was to deny the renter’s application. Roughly half of respondents agreed that subsidized providers appear to consider additional context. Respondents also reported extensive errors in the reporting of eviction records. For example, 81% of respondents observed the reporting of an eviction when the tenant had in fact prevailed.

In addition to inaccurate eviction reporting, the survey also identified extensive problems with criminal record reporting. As many as 54% of respondents reported observing convictions or charges that had been reversed, dropped, or dismissed, creating barriers to renting; criminal records being reported on the wrong consumer’s report; the reporting of sealed or expunged convictions; and the reporting of arrest records older than seven years.

Based on overwhelming responses emphasizing the problematic nature of the tenant screening process, NCLC recommends action at the national, state, and local levels to regulate the tenant screening industry, better enforce existing policies, and conduct further research into how renters can better access decent and affordable housing.

Read the article at: