Tackling the Tenant Screening Background Blacklist With New Legislation

New York Times
Published: April 7, 2010

If you have ever been in housing court for an eviction proceeding — whether you withheld rent because of the hole in your ceiling or because of the ticket you bought to Maui — your name may be on a list that screening companies sell to landlords to help them spot potentially troublesome tenants.

Even if you won the case.

The list of those named in eviction filings has remained, by and large, relegated to the murky status of urban legend. But in February the City Council passed legislation, introduced by Councilman Daniel R. Garodnick, called the Tenant Fair Chance Act. It requires landlords, property managers and brokers to disclose which screening company, if any, they plan to use for these background checks.

Starting this summer, tenants will have the chance to order their files from the firms in question, and correct any inaccuracies.

“We began to hear from constituents throughout the city that they were getting rejected for apartments and they couldn’t figure out why,” said Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker. “They had an albatross around their necks, and they didn’t even know it.”

As soon as an eviction case is put on the calendar by a clerk or lawyer, New York’s housing court system sells the names of tenants to screening companies. The court has sold case information since 1990.

One pitfall for renters is that because the database is organized by name rather than, say,Social Security number, it is possible that someone with the same, or almost the same, name as a tenant-defendant could be included. But even if the information on the screening report is accurate, there is generally precious little of it. It will not say, for example, whether rent was withheld because the building was falling down, or whether the housing court found in a tenant’s favor.

Screening companies do not coordinate with one another, and there are more than 600 of them nationwide, so it is important to know where a landlord plans to look.

“We can’t stop the practice,” Ms. Quinn said, explaining that any decision to end the practice of selling this information would be made by the State Legislature. “But at least we’ve brought it out in the sunlight, and that’s always the best disinfectant. Tenants will have knowledge, and in these types of situations, knowledge is power.”

Louise Seeley, the executive director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a nonprofit agency that helps people navigate the housing court system, said her organization received 5 to 10 calls a week from potential tenants whose names were on the list. Names are meant to be expunged after seven years, she said, but some companies are not careful about purging their records.

The prospect of being added to the list can have a chilling effect on tenants, advocates for renters said.

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