When an individual applies to become a tenant in a rental property, he or she must often consent to a range of screening measures that determine his or her suitability. These measures may include reference checks and the evaluation of a credit report. Landlords want to maintain safe properties, and they use tenant background checks to factor in criminal history.
Do these checks unfairly prejudice landlords against individuals with prior convictions? Some West Coast locales, including Seattle and Oakland, say yes, and they've taken steps to combat what local leaders see as an uneven playing field. Early in 2020, Oakland banned landlords from using background checks to make rental decisions, except when required by federal law, following on the heels of a similar ruling in Seattle.
Local leaders contend that by banning tenant background checks, they will expand fair access to housing. These changes mirror the "ban the box" trend that employers are facing. These rules, which bar businesses from asking about an applicant's criminal history at certain stages of the hiring process, seek to reduce barriers to employment.
Policies similar to Seattle's are the exception for now, not the norm. Not every municipality is on board with the idea, which is limited to a few cities across the nation. The City Council of New Bedford, Massachusetts, proposed making it mandatory for all landlords to conduct background checks on prospective tenants. The idea was met with support and some pushback as property owners expressed their concerns about shouldering the cost of such a procedure.
In other states, such as Missouri, there is no sign of curtailing landlords’ pre-screening capabilities. In Kansas City, police often report about crimes committed by tenants in certain housing directly to landlords, and owners receive encouragement to use all the tools at their disposal for screening purposes.
As more municipalities change the rules regarding tenant background checks, staying in tune with local law is more critical than ever for property owners. Proper procedures help landlords to avoid accusations of discrimination and fines. Even in areas where rules bar most rental background checks, there are still exceptions—when the law requires it, landlords can look for certain red flags.
Accessing the proper tools, such state sex offender registries, is essential for all landlords and especially for those working under new restrictions. backgroundchecks.com provides accessible tenant background checks and related products that are ideal for pre-screening tenants. With a compliant strategy in place and the appropriate resources, landlords can safeguard their investments.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments