“These housing application fees cost me so much!”
“I had that apartment for sure but my background check said I had an eviction that never happened!”
This ordinance supports the use of reusable screening reports by setting guidelines for landlords regarding tenant background reports. The reusable reports are a verified report purchased from a third party company by a tenant, who can then give the report to as many landlords as they would like to within a 30-day period. Reusable reports save tenants from paying an application fee each time they apply and gives the applicant control over what information they would like to share with the landlord while allowing tenants to verify that all of the information collected about them is true.
Understanding the Policy
In a competitive rental market like Richmond, tenants often have to apply multiple times, incurring fees that are especially burdensome to low-income tenants. Fees are generally about $30‑$50 per application and applicants often have to submit dozens of applications. Landlords often do not have written selection criteria and therefore the tenant has no way of knowing whether or not they qualify for the housing until after the application is denied. Reusable reports do not cost landlords anything and reduce the amount of work that a landlord would have to do in conducting background checks on applicants.
While both traditional background reports used by landlords and reusable reports may turn up incorrect information such as expunged evictions or convictions, only reusable reports give applicants the chance to correct those mistakes. For example, websites that publish criminal history (even when removed from a person’s record) often only remove the information online after someone has paid them to take it down, and this is no guarantee that the information won’t resurface on other websites. In addition, correcting a consumer credit report can be incredibly difficult. Under the current system, landlords (the consumers of credit reporting agencies) have no incentive to make sure the information is correct.
By shifting the power to tenants (the consumer of a reusable report) there will be more pressure on credit reporting agencies to furnish accurate information. According to Richmond’s Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, it is illegal for affordable housing providers to ask about an applicant’s prior conviction history. The reusable reports would aid in implementing the law by shifting the responsibility of obtaining the report to the tenant, helping the landlord to avoid illegal research on prior conviction history.
In addition, the local ordinance could strengthen the federal Fair Credit Report Act (FCRA), which was enacted to protect a consumer’s right to privacy by regulating the practice of consumer credit reporting. However, in the case of inaccurate reports, the act continues to place the burden of proof on the subject of the reports and does not give tenants control over the sharing of information.
Limitations? The reusable screening report does not produce a new set of guidelines for assessing the economic and personal character of the applicant; they continue to rely on consumer credit reports, criminal records searches, and eviction history, each of which disproportionately disadvantage low-income people of color. Washington State passed the first law about these reports in 2016, which requires landlords to state whether or not they accept the reports, but falls short of requiring landlords to accept the reports in place of landlord controlled background checks. A law that would require the acceptance of these reports has not been legally tested in California.
Designing the Policy
The Washington law (Senate Bill 6413) was passed unanimously by both government chambers and represented a compromise between landlords and tenants. While landlords were always able to accept these reports, the ordinance supports their increased usage by requiring landlords to state whether or not they accept the reports. Alternately, the law could be written in a stricter way, requiring the acceptance of the reports, either by all landlords or a subset (such as affordable housing providers) that increases compliance with existing laws such as Fair Chance Housing. The stricter the law, the more likely that it will be challenged by landlord groups in its passage and through legal means if it is passed. The possibility of a legal challenge is based on the law privileging specific companies (who prepare these reports) over others (traditional background check companies) and was one of the considerations in why Washington’s law does not require the acceptance of the reports (Washington State has particularly strong regulations around laws that privilege one corporation over another). Landlords could argue that they do not trust the technology or qualifications of one company, and therefore want to work with the company of their choosing, which may not produce these reports.
In Washington, the primary screening company (myscreeningreport.com) that provides these reports saw an increase in the use of their services after the legislation was passed (data was unavailable from the company). The reports were more frequently accepted by independent landlords than by larger management companies which have more systematized processes already in place.
The screening reports may be especially helpful for service providers who can work with clients to prepare the reports and then assist in sharing them with multiple landlords. Myscreeningreport.com saw an increase in Washington in the use of the reports by non-profits working with the homeless as well as social workers and their clients.
Many landlords use credit reporting agencies that analyze the applicant’s history to determine eligibility for the housing and then provide the landlord with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” recommendation. Landlords using a portable screening report would have to do the analysis themselves based on reports shared by the tenants.
Putting the Policy in Place
Hold additional tenant meetings and workshops to assess the need for the ordinance and the scope of the law. In preliminary meetings, tenants have expressed that the cost of multiple housing application fees are a significant burden when searching for housing.
Hold meetings with service providers to explore how the ordinance could aid their work.
Work with city staff to assess how the portable screening report could support and align with the implementation of Fair Chance Housing and existing housing policies, such as the Housing Element and Health in All Policies.
Host workshops for landlords and tenants that explain the policy and clarify the reliability and importance of allowing tenants this option. Identify landlords who are supportive of an ordinance.
Assess the legality of different versions of the law (requirement compared to optional use).
Work with tenants, landlords, organizations, screening companies, and city staff organizers to draft the legislation for Richmond with attention to Fair Chance Housing. Introduce the policy via a supportive sponsor on the City Council.
Columbia Legal Services (Seattle)
Moco Inc. (Myscreeningreport.com) - Megan McCormick
Solid Ground (Seattle) - Humberto Alvarez