Navigating the Conundrum Surrounding Today's Tenant Background Checks

Tenant background checks have been a fixture of the rental process for many decades, but the landscape has become much more complicated. At a time when some municipalities have acted to ban such vetting outright, many landlords nationwide still wonder what’s next. Property owners may wonder if the potential hassle is worthwhile even in areas where such vetting remains legal.

Understanding these tools’ short- and long-term value is the first step to unraveling the mystery. Following that up with an active effort to remain engaged in changes around the process can help, too. Here’s what landlords should know right now.

The Immediate Value of Background Checks Remains

The importance and utility of background checks have not changed. They remain an excellent tool to use as part of your overall strategy for risk management. As a landlord, the goal is deceptively simple: select tenants that can pay their bills, safeguard the property and live agreeably with neighbors. A background and credit check for tenants provide landlords with critical information about all these elements.

These reports may raise vital red flags to consider—though landlords must also remember they are not predictors of the future. In Tacoma, a man living in subsidized housing injured an infant by shooting into his neighbor’s apartment. Investigations revealed the man had prior convictions for firearm possession and robbery but was granted housing vouchers anyway. Stories such as these highlight the importance of thorough vetting and carefully considering tenant suitability.

There Are Long-Term Benefits to Consider, Too

The Tacoma story highlights an important reality: showing a thorough background check history can provide a shield against claims of negligence. A background check isn’t just for you or your community; it’s also an essential way of showing you took steps to make fully-informed choices. Demonstrating diligence in vetting can ensure that landlords satisfy their duty to the public of protecting existing tenants from potentially dangerous individuals.

The Shifting Sands of Criminal Background Check Legislation

Despite the importance of these steps, many reform advocates say that real estate background check requirements create an unfair and unequal barrier to housing. They further claim that this increases recidivism and exacerbates the housing shortage. The data support these claims to some extent—but some communities have decided to move towards banning or restricting tenant screening as a response.

From California to Colorado to New York and Maine, background checks used by landlords are in the spotlight. Some places in California have entirely banned these checks. Others continue to consider ways to restrict screening, potentially increasing the level of risk landlords face—and possibly driving them from the market altogether.

For landlords, advocacy is always an option. In Colorado and Maine, local legislation to curtail tenant background checks faced stiff opposition from local groups. As a result, a compromise was reached—preserving the right to use background checks while creating some reasonable guardrails to protect tenant rights. 

Looking Forward

While expanding access to housing is both a necessary and noble goal, it will be crucial to continue considering how to do so while maintaining safe neighborhoods. The debate over the efficacy and suitability of tenant background checks is far from over; if anything, it’s just beginning. Landlords should strive to remain aware of any potential changes in their local laws and consider the opportunity to add their voices to the conversation.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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