The Debate about Tenant Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 12/5/2019

Should landlords be free to run tenant background checks and make decisions based on details such as criminal history? This question is at the center of a contentious debate currently raging in the rental housing community. 

Several progressive legislators and city councils have recently taken steps to curb the use of criminal history information in housing-related decisions. Landlords are pushing back against these laws and ordinances, arguing that the government should have no say in what they do with their private property. 

At the center of the controversy is Seattle, Washington. In 2017, the city passed a “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance,” which is intended “to help prevent unfair bias in housing against renters with a past criminal record.” The ordinance bars landlords in the city from running a criminal background check on their prospective tenants. Only landlords who will be sharing a residence or property with a tenant—such as those renting out a single bedroom or an accessory dwelling unit—are permitted to check the criminal records of tenants. 

Seattle also maintains a “first-in-time law,” which requires landlords to establish their standards or qualifications for tenants and then accept the first applicant who qualifies. Landlords have criticized—and legally challenged—both laws, arguing that the restrictive legislation is an example of government overreach and suggesting that it might drive them to take their properties off the rental market entirely. 

Seattle isn’t the only place where these debates are taking place. New York State recently passed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act. The law seeks to protect tenants from unfair housing practices, but it also puts new limitations on how landlords can manage their properties. 

One restriction is that landlords can’t charge their prospective tenants more than $20 per tenant to cover the cost of tenant background checks. Another is that landlords cannot use previous eviction data to disqualify a prospective tenant. Landlords must give tenants 14 days to vacate a property after being evicted; the former requirement was three days. Landlords have argued that the stipulations make it more difficult to turn a profit from rental properties

Officials in Berkeley, California are thinking about banning the box for rental applications—a policy that major cities such as Chicago have already implemented. Kansas City, Missouri is mulling a “Tenant Bill of Rights,” which would protect tenants against discrimination for past criminal history and limit security deposits. Spokane, Washington is considering a similar Tenants Bill of Rights law, which critics have argued would making housing less affordable

Proponents of criminal justice reform have plenty of evidence that barring ex-criminal offenders from housing employment boosts recidivism. However, landlords do have rights, and many property owners claim that these new “tenant rights” laws directly infringe upon those rights, such as the right to conduct tenant background checks. Keep an eye on the blog for the latest developments in tenant background checks and vetting legislation.

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