Cities Seek to Ban Criminal Background Checks on Tenants

by | Nov 18, 2019 | Tenant Screening

Berkeley, California City Council is moving forward with a proposed ordinance which would prohibit landlords from inquiring about a rental applicant’s criminal history, including violent crimes.

Several other cities — Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis to name a few — recently passed or are considering similar initiatives, referred to as “fair chance” or “clean slate” ordinances. While the text of these laws varies, the intent is the same. City officials have adopted the position that criminal recidivism — the likelihood of repeating a crime — is driven, at least in part, by a lack of housing.

According to Berkeley’s statistics, 85% of landlords check criminal history. By eliminating the ability to factor in past criminal conduct when qualifying renters, lawmakers believe that homelessness — and crime rates — will go down.

Berkeley’s draft ordinance prohibits landlords from applying a blanket ban on all criminal conduct and requires notice to applicants that criminal history will not be considered. Landlords will not be allowed to ask about criminal history on rental applications, ask for consent to run a criminal background check, or access criminal records.

However, Berkeley landlords will be allowed to apply other factors including tenant credit, income, and rental history, something that is not freely allowed in other cities, including Portland.

In other ways, this appears to be the most restrictive of recent fair chance legislation. Minneapolis, for instance, allows landlords to make an individualized assessment of a prospective tenant’s criminal background, taking into account the severity of the crime, the number of convictions, and the age of the applicant at the time the crime was committed. These factors track with HUD guidelines, which also prohibit landlords from a blanket ban on all criminal contact.

One problem with the Minneapolis and Portland versions of fair chance is that the time period for assessing an individual’s recidivism runs concurrently with a prison sentence. A person could serve a decade or more in prison and be eligible for a private rental the day of their release.

Landlords who have opposed these measures argue that tenant retention may be adversely impacted, and that eviction rates may increase. Advocates who work with ex-cons have expressed concern that these vulnerable applicants are being set up for a fall because they may not successfully rehabilitate without support services, something private landlords are not equipped to provide.

Other concerns include an increased risk of a negligence lawsuit against a landlord should a tenant with a criminal past injure others, a rise in insurance premiums, and that the restrictions on tenant screening might violate the terms of existing mortgage contracts and grants. Crime has a significant impact on property value. And it appears that each time a city passes rental restrictions, investors get skittish and look at alternative markets, which may only exacerbate a city’s rental housing shortage.

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.

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