The mission of the Tenants Union’s Housing Access Project is to increase access and undo institutional barriers to decent, affordable housing for communities criminalized, marginalized, and segregated by commercial and judicial systems. HAP uses organizing, outreach, and political education to develop strong tenant leadership to end housing discrimination against communities disproportionately impacted by race and class bias in the tenant screening, court, and criminal justice systems.
In Washington State there is no right to rent. When vacancy rates are tight housing opportunities can slip through a tenant’s fingers for having a less-than-perfect credit or housing history. Landlords often refuse to rent to people because they have Section 8 vouchers, or based on their source of income. Tenants who win in eviction court are left with a permanent court record that landlords use to deny them housing. A person leaving the criminal justice system will be denied housing and employment because their conviction record will follow them everywhere they go. Many people are denied for having inaccurate information on their screening report, but by the time they fix the problem they’ve already lost their housing opportunity. Every time someone is denied housing the cost of screening is passed on to the tenant, and many pay hundreds of dollars in repeated screening fees for all their housing applications just to be turned down. This leaves many penniless to put down a first, last months rent, and deposit for the landlord willing to rent to them. These are the barriers most tenants face when trying to secure a decent, safe place to live.
Because we live in a highly digital age, all of these records are easily accessible online. A tenant screening industry has grown over the last few decades from a cottage industry into a multi-million dollar business. The use of a tenant screening company is now the standard practice of most property owners. Most tenants are very familiar with having to put down non-refundable screening fees of $35-$70 per applicant with each application for housing. The Tenants Union has fought to break down these barriers to housing over the years on all levels of government, and is now concentrating the access to housing fight into the following campaigns.
Goals of Housing Access Project
- Make eviction records sealable or redactable for tenants who won in eviction court, were wrongly evicted, or have records related to their status as domestic violence survivors.
- Make credit reports portable and affordable.
- Prevent tenant screening companies from using domestic-violence records in housing determinations.
- Support tenants in asserting their rights under landlord-tenant law without fear of retaliation from the landlord in the form of an eviction filing.
- Make it illegal to discriminate against people who use Section 8 vouchers or other governmental source of income (social security, disability) to pay their rent.
- Reduce discrimination against communities disproportionately impacted by racism and classism in the criminal justice system.
- Provide advocacy and education for tenants on their rights in tenant screening.
- Hold individual tenant screening companies accountable through litigation, creating a deterrent effect for screening companies.
- Hold individual landlords and management companies accountable for discriminatory or illegal screening practices.
- Regulate tenant screening companies to stop the misuse of court records.
See also Legislative Advocacy Resources and Tenant Action for more information on how to get involved in the legislative process.
The Tenants Union has won and is active in many legislative campaigns for tenants rights, housing justice, and safe healthy housing for all. See Tenant Action for more information on how to get involved in TU campaigns.
To learn more about legislative advocacy at the state and national level, click on the links below:
Discrimination is a significant problem in Seattle in two major areas — housing and the criminal justice system. A recent investigation by the Seattle Office of Human Rights confirmed that African Americans and People with Disabilities encounter frequent discrimination when applying for rental housing. A new U.S. Justice Department report revealed that there are serious concerns that some of the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) policies and practices could result in discriminatory policing. The report also found that the SPD uses unnecessary or excessive force when arresting people for minor offenses – particularly people with mental health issues. Another report found that African Americans are significantly over-represented, and Whites under-represented among those arrested by the SPD for delivering drugs in Seattle. Statewide, African Americans are 62% more likely to be sentenced to prison than Whites for felony drug crimes. In WA, Blacks are incarcerated at more than 6 times the rate of Whites.
Discrimination against renters based on verifiable and legitimate sources of income is an unfair and discriminatory practice. Tenants who attempt to legally use a subsidy frequently hear comments like, “I don’t rent to people like you”. Some landlords advertise “No section 8” or will refuse an application for tenancy, regardless of the tenant’s rental and credit history, simply because of their lawful source of income. Washington State has already recognized the need to protect residents from housing discrimination based on their race, disability, sex, familial status and others. But a gaping loophole exists that leave many people in these categories, such as single parents, the disabled and the elderly open to discrimination based on their source of income. Policies like “no section 8” are a pretext for illegal discrimination and have a disparate impact on Washington’s most vulnerable families.
The Fair Tenant Screening Act addresses the lack of affordability, accuracy, and access to justice in tenant screening. Renters are routinely denied housing for reasons they never get to know by screening reports they never get to see. Low-income renters and homeless families are spending hundreds of dollars on repeated screening fees ending up penniless to pay for a first month’s rent or move-in deposit. Domestic violence records can be improperly included in a screening report causing a survivor to be illegally denied.
Screening reports many times contain incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information. When a tenant is threatened with an eviction lawsuit the record will often not reflect if the tenant won in court, or distinguish if the tenant was evicted due to a foreclosure at no fault of their own or even if they were never actually evicted at all. As a result many tenants waive their rights under threat of legal action because the simple filing of an eviction lawsuit is enough to permanently mark their record. The misleading record will systematically result in the denial of housing, effectively chilling a tenant’s rights and access to justice.
To see a webinar on the Fair Tenant Screening Act (FTSA), go to Housing Alliance Learn at Lunch: Fair Tenant Screening Act, Part 2 101.