Background Checks on Renters Raise Questions

April 27, 2016

Landlords who deny an apartment applicant a lease due to a failed background check may be breaking the law and face housing discriminating allegations, according to new guidance issued from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“A policy or practice that denies housing to anyone with a prior arrest or any kind of criminal conviction cannot be justified,” says the HUD guidance, which was issued April 4.

The new guidance marks a change. In the early 1990s, HUD once guided public housing authorities not to rent its subsidized apartments to residents who failed criminal background checks.

HUD says it was forced to reconsider now that nearly one-third of the U.S. population — or up to 100 million people — have some kind of criminal record, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Also, third-party background checkers often just provide a “pass” or “fail” result, which applicants are then unable to contest for errors or inaccuracies.

“Research shows that people who come out of prison and can’t find housing often become homeless, have high rates of recidivism and often end up back in prison,” says Elayne Weiss, policy analyst for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Their not having housing doesn’t help anyone.”

HUD’s guidance directs landlords and property managers to more closely consider the details of a person’s criminal history before refusing to rent to him or her. They should carefully consider “the nature and severity of an individual’s conviction” and “the amount of time that has passed,” according to HUD. But they need to be careful not to discriminate.

“Ensuring resident safety and protecting property are often considered to be among the fundamental responsibilities of a housing provider,” the guidance reads. “The Act does not prohibit housing providers from appropriately considering criminal history information when making housing decisions.”

Source: “Background Check Policies for Apartment Applicants May Be Illegal,” National Real Estate Investor (April 26, 2016)