This section explores the main factors landlords take into consideration when screening tenants:
- Screening fees
- Credit history
- Rental history
- Criminal records
- Employment & Income
- Social security number.
- Discrimination in tenant screening
In general, landlords are looking for tenants who will be able to pay rent consistently, who will treat their units with care, and who will be trouble-free neighbors. Every landlord has their own set of requirements for the tenants who live in their units, and go about collecting that information in a variety of ways. Landlords can use whatever screening criteria they desire, as long as they are applying these criteria in a non-discriminatory manner. If they ask a question of one type of renter, they must uniformly ask it of all renters who apply to live in their units in order to not be discriminatory. Any tenant that is denied tenancy from a screening report, or received an adverse action like an increased deposit or co-signer requirement, must be informed in writing the reason why.
Some landlords use screening services that look up the information for them, and other landlords may do very little screening. Even if you have dings on your credit record, eviction history or criminal record, there is still much you can do to establish that you will be a good tenant. It’s a good idea to have a complete rental résumé, including employment information, references from previous landlords, supervisors, social workers and other community members, such as pastors or a faith leader. This can be especially important if you have credit issues or blemishes in your rental history. If you have blemishes on your record, you may be able to offer an additional deposit or a shorter lease to move in.
1) Screening Fees
Before a landlord can charge a tenant a screening fee they must disclose the criteria they will use that would result in a denial of tenancy either in writing or by posting. Landlords can only charge prospective tenants for the actual cost of screening fees. They cannot profit from application fees. Most landlords pay tenant screening companies to research potential tenants, including criminal background checks, credit checks, eviction and court records, employment history and rental histories. Tenant screening services also look for things such as histories of late payments, any evictions or default judgments, collections or bankruptcies. Application and screening fees generally cost $35-$75 per person.
It may be a good idea to ask the landlord to get a sense of their standards before you apply. You may be able to avoid having to pay unnecessary screening fees if you find out ahead of time that the landlord will not consider renting to any tenant who has an eviction or criminal history. It may save you from paying screening fees in units where the landlord will not be willing to rent to you because of a blemish on your record.
Credit is one of the primary issues that landlords consider when screening tenants. If you know that you have credit problems, or if you find yourself paying numerous costly credit check fees to apartment buildings, you can take a copy of your credit report to the landlord when you look at the apartment and show them any blemishes that appear. Landlords do not have to accept your copy of the credit report, but you can explain what happened to your credit and what you are doing to clear up the problem.
You may be able to improve your credit by paying off any judgments or debts and making sure everything that appears on the report is correct. It will take work to clean up your credit. There is no quick way to get rid of credit issues, but many landlords will be more willing to work with you if you have negotiated a payment plan to pay off back debts. Solid Ground offers Financial Fitness Boot Camp that may be helpful in getting back on your feet financially.
As of December 2004, the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the three big credit reporting agencies to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. If you have already received a free credit report and need to order another, it will be about $10. It will cost a few dollars more if you would also like a credit score (FICO score), in addition to your report. There are three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. These agencies have set up one central website, phone number, and address through which you can order your free annual report. Be careful of fake or fraudulent websites.
To order a copy of your credit report, go to annualcreditreport.com, call 877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, PO Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. You can print the form from the Federal Trade Commission’s Credit & Loans webpage. Keep in mind that each of the three credit reporting agencies above will have different information on you, so Equifax might show an account that Experian does not, for example. It all depends on whom your creditors use. You might want to get all three, requesting a different one every few months so you have the complete picture.
If the entire reason or part of the reason the landlord denied your tenancy is because of your credit report, they must tell you that they did so and provide you with the name, address and phone number of the credit reporting agency that provided that information to them. In turn, that credit reporting agency must provide you with a free copy of your credit report. Typically, in order to obtain the free report you must make the request within 30 days. For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission’s A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The FTC also has a guide to cleaning up your credit called Credit Repair: How to Help Yourself.
3) Rental History
Potential landlords may research your rental history and seek references from previous landlords to get a sense of your qualifications as a renter. There are no laws in the Landlord-Tenant Act that restrict what information about you a landlord gives as a part of the screening process. You may decide to bring references from former landlords or employers and other character references. If you are concerned that a former landlord may misrepresent or lie about your qualifications as a tenant, you can give the new landlord an explanation of the situation or additional references.
Some Credit Reporting Agencies conduct interviews with former landlords and may ask such questions as, “Did the tenant give proper notice to vacate?” or “Did the tenant ever receive any notices for nonpayment or noncompliance?” or “Did the tenant leave the unit in good condition?”
Do you have an eviction on your record? Unfortunately, even if you never went to court, if a landlord ever filed a lawsuit to evict you, it will show up on your record. It is often best to be upfront about this with a potential landlord. You can explain the circumstances and ask if they are willing to rent to tenants with past evictions on their records. Additionally, make sure that any judgments against you have been paid. Many places won’t rent to you if those judgments have not been satisfied.
If you were evicted illegally, or won in eviction court, it will still show up in your record as an eviction and can be used against you in the screening process. You can bring a written explanation or a letter from the court stating that you won the eviction, or that the action was brought against you illegally. The new landlord may be willing to consider the extenuating circumstances surrounding the eviction.
The Tenants Union is working to win stronger protections for tenants who are evicted illegally or who win in eviction court. For more information, see Fair Tenant Screening Act
5) Criminal Record
- Can I Clear My Criminal Record?
- Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington
- SHB 1793
- Seattle Human Rights Commission: Proposed Ordinance to End Arrest/Conviction Record Discrimination
- Eliminating Barriers to Jobs and Housing
- Sample Letter: Housing Denial for Criminal History
- ACLU Criminal Records Project
Some landlords may screen out tenants who have criminal records, assuming that they will not be trustworthy renters, regardless of the nature of the crime, the circumstances surrounding the conviction, and the amount of time that has passed since the criminal activity occurred. If you have a criminal record, you might want to be upfront about it in order to avoid paying screening costs for a unit where the landlord refuses to accept tenants with criminal records. If you can get a personal letter of reference from a community member, case manager or even a friend, bring that along. Some tenant screening services check criminal history and some don’t. You can ask the landlord if they will rent to someone with a criminal record. If you know right away that the landlord will not consider you for tenancy because of a criminal history or eviction on your record, you can save the money you would have spent on a tenant screening or application fee and apply for another unit.
In some cases you may be able to expunge your record so it does not show up anymore. Legal Voice’s Can I Clear My Criminal Record? has more on expunging a criminal record. The University of Washington School of Law Legal Clinic’s Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington can help juveniles clear their criminal records and access a new law that allows youth to have their criminal record expunged if they receive a pardon from the Governor.
An arrest alone should not be grounds for denial of housing. If you were denied housing because of previous criminal charge for which you were not convicted, that could be a violation of fair housing laws. A criminal charge is not a determination of fault under the law and may be reported to a Civil Rights Office. In addition, it is discrimination for a landlord to only run criminal background checks on protected class groups, or not to select applicants consistently based on the same criteria. It also may be discrimination for landlords to have outright bans on all people with criminal records, because it disparately impacts groups that are incarcerated more heavily for discriminatory reasons. Landlord should consider how long ago the crime occurred, any extenuating circumstances surrounding the arrest or conviction, whether the crime has any relevance towards the tenant’s ability to be a good renter, and any evidence of rehabilitation. Contact the King County Office for Civil Rights or the Washington State Human Rights Commission for more information.
Tenants whose criminal history is related to a disability can make a reasonable accommodation request to the landlord to accept alternative forms of determining eligibility for housing. Past drug addiction is considered a disability under fair housing laws. The tenant may submit a plan to the prospective landlord detailing any and all efforts they have undertaken to address and eliminate the issues that led to the crime, in addition to letters of support or certificates from drug rehabilitation programs, case managers, or other landlords. For more information, contact the King County Office for Civil Rights. See the Sample Letter: Housing Denial for Criminal History . The ACLU may also be able to offer assistance. For more information, see ACLU Criminal Records Project.
In addition, the City of Seattle is currently considering a proposal to make it illegal for housing providers to discriminate against tenants on the basis of arrest or conviction record history. For more information, see Seattle Human Rights Commission’s Proposed Ordinance to End Arrest/Conviction Record Discrimination and Eliminating Barriers to Jobs and Housing.
TU Campaign The Tenants Union advocates for a Seattle Ordinance that would amend Seattle’s current anti-discrimination laws to limit the ways a landlord can use arrest or conviction records when making rental decisions. This would move toward ending discrimination against people whose past record does not related to their tenancy. See Criminal Record Discrimination for more information.
6) Employment & Income
Prospective landlords will generally want to verify your employment status and income to ensure that you make enough money to afford the rent. Some landlords require that tenants earn double or triple the amount of rent. They may ask for your bank account numbers, copies of your paystubs or your employer’s phone number. You can decide what information you are comfortable sharing with your landlord, and how you would like to share it. If you are not comfortable with providing a prospective landlord with your bank account information, you may decide to provide a copy of your bank statement that shows your name, account history and balance, but black out the account numbers. Or you may offer to show them paycheck invoices as an alternative. The landlord may decide not to rent to you on the basis of any information you decide not to provide, but the integrity of your personal information will remain intact.
7) Social Security Number & Immigration Status
Landlords can legally ask for social security numbers on rental applications as long as they are not doing so in a discriminatory manner. For example, it would be a violation of fair housing laws for a landlord to ask only individuals from one particular ethnic group for their social security numbers. If they ask one tenant, they must ask all tenants. If they are requesting social security numbers in a nondiscriminatory manner, landlords can legally choose not to rent to tenants who do not provide valid social security numbers. Not all landlords ask for them, and not all will choose not to rent to tenants who don’t provide them. Try to find out more about the landlord’s evaluation criteria before you fill out the application.
IRS regulations specify that projects financed through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program are not required to collect social security numbers from potential residents. However, LIHTC projects still ask for social security numbers on applications and use them to determine applicants’ financial eligibility and suitability as tenants. Equivalent identification would be a Work Visa, Alien Registration Receipt Card, Temporary Resident Card, IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), or Employment Authorization Card. Failure on the part of applicants to provide social security numbers or equivalent identification could hinder or delay an LIHTC property’s ability to review their applications for housing.
8) Discrimination in Tenant Screening
It is not necessarily discriminatory if a landlord does not rent to you because of any problems with your screening report. A landlord does not have to tell you exactly why they chose not to rent to you. They do have to inform you that they denied you for tenancy and tell you how to get a copy of the report on which they based their decision. Landlords cannot deny tenancy on the basis of any discriminatory reason or choose not to rent to you on the basis of any protected class, including race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, family status or national origin. In Seattle, Unincorporated King County and Bellevue it is discriminatory to deny housing because of a tenant’s Section 8 voucher status. For more information on discrimination and your civil rights, see Seattle Office for Civil Rights, King County Office of Civil Rights or the Washington State Human Rights Commission.
As long as landlords are not collecting information in a discriminatory manner, there are no laws restricting what information is asked of you on a rental application. However, there are laws restricting how that information can be used. You may ask why the landlord wants the information and what they are going to do with it. They must have a legitimate business reason for requesting it from you. It is at a landlord’s discretion to choose not to offer a unit to you if you do not provide the information requested, but sometimes landlords will be flexible if you have concerns.
There are additional protections in the law for tenants who are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. RCW 59.18.580 states that a landlord cannot refuse to enter into a rental agreement based on a household member’s status as a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, or because the tenant had previously terminated a lease for any of those reasons. A landlord who refuses to enter into a rental agreement with a tenant because of their status as a survivor is liable to the prospective tenant in civil action for their actual damages, plus court costs and attorneys’ fees if they prevail.