Tenant Tip: New law prevents housing discrimination against survivors of domestic violence

Gov. Inslee signs the Fair Tenant Screening Act

Gov. Inslee signs the Fair Tenant Screening Act

Thanks to all the stories, phone calls, emails and advocacy from all of you, the second part of the Fair Tenant Screening Act (SSB 5568) was signed into law by Governor Inslee on April 23, 2013. This is a huge win for tenants, housing advocates and survivors of domestic violence across Washington State!

What does the new law do?

When you fill out an application for rental housing and pay a screening fee, often a landlord will use a third party company to put together a tenant screening report on a prospective renter. The new law prevents these tenant screening companies from reporting information about a person’s status as a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. This means tenant screening companies cannot report that a tenant has a history of domestic violence, nor can they disclose that a victim has a protection order in place for their safety.

In addition, the law prevents screening companies from reporting to a landlord that the tenant has previously broken a lease and moved out early – as the law allows survivors of domestic violence to do in RCW 59.18.575.

Filing a protection order and breaking a lease are both available as legal remedies to ensure the safety of domestic violence survivors. Therefore, we need to make sure our laws also guarantee that people are not punished – by repeatedly being denied rental housing – for choosing to use these options.

Current law prohibits landlords from denying housing based solely on a person’s history of experiencing domestic violence (RCW 59.18.580); however, additional protections were needed to make sure a victim’s history of domestic violence could not be accessed by a landlord and used against them when applying for housing. Everyone needs to be able to have a safe place to start over.

When does the new law go into effect?

The new sections of the law will be added to RCW 59.18.580 and will go into effect on January 1, 2014.

What are the next steps?

There is still plenty of work to be done to make tenant screening a fair and equitable process. Challenges that often arise for people include:

  • Having a wrongful or illegal eviction filing on their record, which a future landlord may use to deny housing.
  • Paying the high cost of tenant screening and application fees, and still being denied housing.
  • Ensuring that the information on a tenant screening report is accurate and reflects the prospective tenant’s actual history.

Do you have a personal story about the challenges you’ve faced as a renter applying for rental housing? If so, please call and leave us a message on our Legislative Advocacy Line at 206.694.6748. We’d love to talk with you about ways to share your story and help change the Landlord-Tenant Laws.

Thanks to all those who contacted their representatives, lobbied, made their voices heard, bravely shared their stories, and spoke up for fair, accessible, housing for all!

Questions?

If you have any questions about the new legislation or what it means for renters, please call and speak to a counselor on the Tenant Services Line 206.694.6767. The message line is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10:30am to 4:30pm, and Tenant Counselors respond to callers throughout the week.

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Tenant Tip: ACLU files lawsuit against tenant screening company

Markeletta Wilson filed a lawsuit seeking a court order requiring RentGrow and Yardi Systems to end their violations of Washington’s Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Markeletta Wilson filed a lawsuit seeking a court order requiring RentGrow and Yardi Systems to end their violations of Washington’s Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced Thursday morning, April 4, 2013, that they are representing Markeletta Wilson in a lawsuit filed against RentGrow, a corporation that specializes in tenant screening. The ACLU lawsuit addresses RentGrow’s unfair denial of Ms. Wilson’s rental application in 2012 in Tukwila, WA. The denial was based solely on her criminal record from two decades ago, including two convictions for drug possession in 1988 and 1995. The screening company violated the Washington Fair Credit Reporting Act by reporting criminal history from over seven years ago.

Since tenant screening companies are largely unregulated, it’s expected that Ms. Wilson’s experience is not uncommon. The case has been filed as a class action lawsuit, as the attorneys believe RentGrow’s screening practices have likely impacted numerous other renters across the state.

Solid Ground and the Washington State Tenants Union participated in the ACLU press conference on Thursday to speak about the effects that unfair tenant screening practices have on families who are trying to secure stable housing. When screening companies use information that is outdated or incorrect, it makes it difficult for tenants with a criminal background to find stable housing and often leads people to become homeless.

Solid Ground’s housing programs work with over 5,000 clients each year, including hundreds of families who are staying with friends and family, sleeping on couches, or staying in shelters because they are unable to secure permanent housing because of unfair screening practices. All people deserve a fair chance to obtain stable, healthy housing, which allows them to then find stable employment and avoid recidivism.

This is an important step forward in making the process of tenant screening more fair for all tenants across Washington State. We are proud to stand beside the ACLU as they work to make safe, stable housing accessible for all people!

You can read the full story on the ACLU’s website in Woman Unfairly Denied Housing Sues Tenant Screening Company. The The Seattle Times and KPLU 88.5 FM also covered the story.

The tenant information contained in this article or linked to the Solid Ground Tenant Services website is for informational purposes only. Solid Ground makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to its website. Solid Ground cannot act as your attorney. Solid Ground makes no representations, expressed or implied, that the information contained in or linked to its website can or will be used or interpreted in any particular way by any governmental agency or court. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and laws are constantly changing, nothing provided here should be used as a substitute for the advice of competent counsel. Solid Ground Tenant Counselors offer these tenant tips as generalized information for renters. People with specific questions should call our Tenant Services hotline at 206.694.6767  Mondays, Wednesdays & Thursdays between 10:30am and 4:30pm.

Tenant Tip: Help pass the Fair Tenant Screening Act!

Current Washington State Residential Landlord-Tenant Law creates some serious housing barriers for domestic violence (DV) survivors and people living on low incomes – such as a requirement to pay separate screening fees for each new rental application. The Fair Tenant Screening Act (FTSA), going before the WA State Senate Rules & Means Committee next Wednesday, February 14, would eliminate those barriers.

Contact your Senators to let them know that FTSA will help keep families housed and prevent homelessness! Below is a brief overview of FTSA by the Housing Alliance detailing why it is important for these bills to pass in order to address serious barriers to housing. You can follow this link to the Housing Alliance’s website and send an email to your senators to ask them to keep them moving in the Senate. You can also call 1.800.562.6000 and ask your senators to support SSB 6321 and SSB 6315.

Substitute Senate Bill 6315 (SSB 6315) will address the high cost of tenant screening reports by asking a work group of stakeholders, including tenants, landlords and tenant screening companies, to examine how to make a portable report work in Washington, or otherwise drive down the high cost of tenant screening reports. It will also require adverse action notices when a landlord decides to not rent to a tenant and will allow a tenant to know the criteria that will be used to determine whether or not to rent to them.

SB 6321 provides tenants who have prevailed in court and survivors of DV an opportunity to ask the court to seal or redact their record so that their future housing prospects will no longer unfairly be diminished.

Currently, the reports generated to landlords can contain misleading, unfair and inaccurate information. They report merely if a tenant has been named in an eviction lawsuit – not the outcome, not if the tenant was wrongfully named, not if the tenant prevailed, not if the tenant’s eviction was the result of a bank foreclosing on their landlord – but nothing about the circumstances is provided.

No matter the circumstances (even when they’ve won in court), a tenant is treated guilty for years to come and they struggle with a mark on their record that will cause many landlords to reject their application. This creates an extremely chilling effect on a process that ought to be accessible to tenants who want their day in court, and instead many are deterred from arguing their case while they meekly seek new housing to avoid the progression of an eviction lawsuit.

Additionally, domestic violence protection orders can be listed in these reports. It is unthinkable that this information could be considered viable in fairly determining someone as a good tenant.

For more detailed information on the Fair Tenant Screening Act and to ask questions or share your story related to these bills, you can leave a message on Solid Ground Tenant Services Advocacy line at 206.694.6748, or email your story to tenantwa@solid-ground.org.

The tenant information contained in this article or linked to the Solid Ground Tenant Services website is for informational purposes only. Solid Ground makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to its website. Solid Ground cannot act as your attorney. Solid Ground makes no representations, expressed or implied, that the information contained in or linked to its website can or will be used or interpreted in any particular way by any governmental agency or court. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and laws are constantly changing, nothing provided here should be used as a substitute for the advice of competent counsel. Solid Ground Tenant Counselors offer these tenant tips as generalized information for renters. People with specific questions should call our Tenant Services hotline at 206.694.6767 Mondays, Wednesdays & Thursdays between 10:30 am and 4:30 pm.

Tenant Tip: Tenant Screening

Landlords typically screen prospective tenants to decide their eligibility to move into a rental unit. Often landlords hire a screening company to decide tenants’ suitability. Screeners investigate potential tenants’ credit, rental history, employment history, criminal background, previous evictions and court records. RCW 59.18.257 is the section of the Washington Residential Landlord-Tenant Act which provides information on tenant screening. The screening process can be burdensome, costly and unfair for tenants, especially if they have wrongful evictions on their record or because of their status as domestic violence survivors.

One of the main challenges is that the tenant is responsible for paying the cost of screening fees which may range from $30 to $75 per application. Even if the landlord decides not to offer a unit to the tenant, the tenant loses their screening fee. Currently, tenants can be denied for any number of reasons, causing them to pay many screening fees. Often people with poor credit or evictions on their record are faced with spending hundreds of dollars on screening fees without ever being offered a unit. These fees can prevent low-income tenants from being able to afford move-in costs and can leave tenants facing homelessness.

A report released this month by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) indicates that housing discrimination based on race or disability occurs frequently in Seattle. In their investigation, nearly 70% of landlords showed some sort of race-based discrimination in which inconsistencies favored white applicants. Disability-based discrimination tests revealed that 38% of the properties used practices that created barriers for people living with disabilities to get access to housing. Read the full press release on the SOCR webpage. These issues of discrimination in tenant screening are happening outside of Seattle as well. We receive calls on our Tenant Services Hotline from all over Washington State from tenants who face housing discrimination based on race, ethnicity, criminal history and disability status.

In addition, mistakes contained in the screening reports or credit reports used to decide tenant eligibility can also cause tenants to be wrongfully denied housing. Tenants may never even see a copy of the report to find an error and dispute the inaccuracy. These inaccuracies may include wrongful evictions that were filed illegally or incorrectly. Once an eviction, or Lawsuit for Unlawful Detainer, is filed with the courts, the eviction record remains on the tenant’s public record for life. Even if the judge rules in the tenant’s favor and they win the case in court, potential landlords are still able to see the eviction on their record and deny housing.

Domestic violence survivors also face discrimination in the tenant screening process, and they are often denied housing because of a protection order on their record. Even though RCW 59.18.570 states that it’s illegal to deny housing based on an individual’s history as a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, many landlords will deny housing to these people without providing a reason. Stronger protections are needed for survivors so they do not have to face discrimination in trying to meet their basic need for safe housing.

Tenant Advocates are working to improve laws to help tenants when going through the screening process in search of housing. The Fair Tenant Screening Act proposes to address the following issues within the screening process:

  • Wrongful evictions
  • Inaccuracies on screening reports
  • High screening fees
  • Additional protections for domestic violence survivors

In order to make these changes, state legislators need to hear from renters throughout Washington State who are directly affected by this serious issue that creates so many housing barriers. If you’d like to share your story and be part of the advocacy effort to support the Fair Tenant Screening Act, please call our Tenant Advocacy Line at 206.694.6748 and attend the Access to Housing Forum to learn more about the Fair Tenant Screening Act and how you can help.

The tenant information contained in this article or linked to the Solid Ground Tenant Services website is for informational purposes only. Solid Ground makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to its website. Solid Ground cannot act as your attorney. Solid Ground makes no representations, expressed or implied, that the information contained in or linked to its website can or will be used or interpreted in any particular way by any governmental agency or court. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and laws are constantly changing, nothing provided here should be used as a substitute for the advice of competent counsel. Solid Ground Tenant Counselors offer these tenant tips as generalized information for renters. People with specific questions should call our Tenant Services hotline at 206.694.6767  Mondays, Wednesdays & Thursdays between 10:30 am and 4:30 pm.

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