Currently residents in Washington State are hit with repeated fees in background checks for housing applications, often paying hundreds of dollars for screening reports that can contain misleading or inaccurate information with no recourse to dispute their record. People are denied housing time and again for reasons they are never told from reports they never get to see. The hardest hit are the people already struggling with significant barriers to housing, such as domestic violence survivors, renters evicted from foreclosure, and homeless families.
In the next few days the state legislature will be voting on whether to keep a proposed bill (HB 2622) alive that would remedy many of the outrageous practices of this industry. The only hope the bill has is if Washington state residents call the legislative committee members to demand this bill be kept alive. The next few days are a crucial time: to learn how you can help go to Solid Ground’s Tenant Services Blog.
A screening report is a product created by a company for sale to landlords that compiles a thorough background check on rental applicants. Even though the design of these screening products is intended to protect the assets of a property owner, it is the renter who pays for this service. Yet, the renter does not get a copy of the product for which they had paid. If you have ever looked for housing and the landlord asks for a $35-50 fee to consider your application then you have already been exposed to the problem. Over the last twenty years the tenant screening industry has grown into a standard business practice for most landlords in making rental decisions.
Today, online databases and easily accessible civil court records float freely on the internet and are scooped up by private companies to be sold back to the consumer in the form of a screening report. It is a contemporary dilemma of the information age, and in the housing context the hardest hit are low-income renters, especially those with damaged credit or criminal and eviction records.
Unlike a standard credit report, a screening report can contain information that the tenant has no ability to contest. This is most problematic for domestic violence survivors who must seek protection orders from the court to escape abusers. Because a domestic violence protection order is a civil court record nothing prohibits a screening company from including the record in a report. It is already illegal under state law to deny a tenant housing because of their domestic violence status, but this loophole in the law can re-victimize the survivor for using the very system meant to protect them. If you don’t get a copy of the report how are you to know the reasons for denial?
One of the must troubling business practices is the inclusion of misleading or inaccurate eviction records in a screening report. As our state has felt its share from the foreclosure crisis, a wave of renters were evicted from these properties at no fault of their own. Last year the legislature heard testimony from Richard Taylor of Bellevue, a disabled senior citizen who was caught in that exact situation. His landlord deceptively signed a one-year lease only two months before the property was foreclosed. He had been paid up on his rent and was shocked to find the sheriff at his door and find out he had been named in the eviction lawsuit. Mr. Taylor now has an eviction on his record for the rest of his life, painting him in a false light that will cause him to be denied housing time and again.
Unlike a credit report, there is no mechanism to remove such improper eviction records from a screening report. Most screening companies refuse to do so. Even if a tenant wins in court against their landlord, they ultimately lose because the record will show up as an “unlawful detainer,” the legal term for eviction, and become a mark against them. This effectively puts a chilling effect on every renter’s ability to assert their rights in Washington.
Anyone with these misleading or inappropriate records will likely pay hundreds of dollars in screening fees. After every denial the tenant will pay for the same report from another landlord, and the repeated costs can be staggering. At Solid Ground people have contacted our agency with reports of having paid $300-400 in screening fees. One of our families enrolled in our homelessness prevention program reported being denied 15 times and paying over $800 in screening fees.
It is often the case they will pay an increased deposit for being perceived as a liability, and will have depleted all of their funds for first month’s rent or deposit on the screening fees alone. Agencies such as Solid Ground can help some people with move-in costs, but it is a waste of scarce resources when the industry could be regulated into an affordable model.
The bottom line is that many people are paying hundreds of dollars to be denied housing by reports they never get to see for reasons they are never told. It is outrageous. This problem perpetuates a cycle of homelessness, harms the most vulnerable of our citizens, restricts access to justice, and wastes scarce resources for those in the most need.