Landlords typically screen prospective tenants to decide their eligibility to move into a rental unit. Often landlords hire a screening company to decide tenants’ suitability. Screeners investigate potential tenants’ credit, rental history, employment history, criminal background, previous evictions and court records. RCW 59.18.257 is the section of the Washington Residential Landlord-Tenant Act which provides information on tenant screening. The screening process can be burdensome, costly and unfair for tenants, especially if they have wrongful evictions on their record or because of their status as domestic violence survivors.
One of the main challenges is that the tenant is responsible for paying the cost of screening fees which may range from $30 to $75 per application. Even if the landlord decides not to offer a unit to the tenant, the tenant loses their screening fee. Currently, tenants can be denied for any number of reasons, causing them to pay many screening fees. Often people with poor credit or evictions on their record are faced with spending hundreds of dollars on screening fees without ever being offered a unit. These fees can prevent low-income tenants from being able to afford move-in costs and can leave tenants facing homelessness.
A report released this month by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) indicates that housing discrimination based on race or disability occurs frequently in Seattle. In their investigation, nearly 70% of landlords showed some sort of race-based discrimination in which inconsistencies favored white applicants. Disability-based discrimination tests revealed that 38% of the properties used practices that created barriers for people living with disabilities to get access to housing. Read the full press release on the SOCR webpage. These issues of discrimination in tenant screening are happening outside of Seattle as well. We receive calls on our Tenant Services Hotline from all over Washington State from tenants who face housing discrimination based on race, ethnicity, criminal history and disability status.
In addition, mistakes contained in the screening reports or credit reports used to decide tenant eligibility can also cause tenants to be wrongfully denied housing. Tenants may never even see a copy of the report to find an error and dispute the inaccuracy. These inaccuracies may include wrongful evictions that were filed illegally or incorrectly. Once an eviction, or Lawsuit for Unlawful Detainer, is filed with the courts, the eviction record remains on the tenant’s public record for life. Even if the judge rules in the tenant’s favor and they win the case in court, potential landlords are still able to see the eviction on their record and deny housing.
Domestic violence survivors also face discrimination in the tenant screening process, and they are often denied housing because of a protection order on their record. Even though RCW 59.18.570 states that it’s illegal to deny housing based on an individual’s history as a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, many landlords will deny housing to these people without providing a reason. Stronger protections are needed for survivors so they do not have to face discrimination in trying to meet their basic need for safe housing.
Tenant Advocates are working to improve laws to help tenants when going through the screening process in search of housing. The Fair Tenant Screening Act proposes to address the following issues within the screening process:
- Wrongful evictions
- Inaccuracies on screening reports
- High screening fees
- Additional protections for domestic violence survivors
In order to make these changes, state legislators need to hear from renters throughout Washington State who are directly affected by this serious issue that creates so many housing barriers. If you’d like to share your story and be part of the advocacy effort to support the Fair Tenant Screening Act, please call our Tenant Advocacy Line at 206.694.6748 and attend the Access to Housing Forum to learn more about the Fair Tenant Screening Act and how you can help.
The tenant information contained in this article or linked to the Solid Ground Tenant Services website is for informational purposes only. Solid Ground makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to its website. Solid Ground cannot act as your attorney. Solid Ground makes no representations, expressed or implied, that the information contained in or linked to its website can or will be used or interpreted in any particular way by any governmental agency or court. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and laws are constantly changing, nothing provided here should be used as a substitute for the advice of competent counsel. Solid Ground Tenant Counselors offer these tenant tips as generalized information for renters. People with specific questions should call our Tenant Services hotline at 206.694.6767. It is a message-only line, typically open M & Th, 10:30am–4:30pm & W, 10:30am–1:30pm.