Contact: Ben Miksch, 206-442-9455 ext. 204, firstname.lastname@example.org
FAIR TENANT SCREENING ACT GOES INTO EFFECT TODAY
Today marks the start of significant new protections for all of Washington’s renters. The enactment of the “Fair Tenant Screening Act” means that every tenant will now know what criteria a landlord will use to make their rental decision. And if that landlord decides to not rent to the tenant, or takes another “adverse action” like charging a higher deposit, then the tenant will have the right to know why. This is the first time tenants in Washington State will have access to this information and this marks a major breakthrough in the barriers tenants face in accessing housing.
The Fair Tenant Screening Act, which was signed into law by Governor Gregoire in March of this year, is aimed at addressing serious and growing problems in the way that tenant screening companies prepare reports for landlords who are evaluating potential renters. These reports can contain misleading or incorrect information, as well as information that is illegal for landlords to use as criteria for screening tenants, such as if the tenant was a victim of domestic violence. Until today, there was no requirement that tenants be informed about what type of information would be included in the screening, who would be preparing the report, or why they were rejected. Without this new law, a prospective renter who was being denied because of incorrect information on a consumer report may never have been informed of why they were rejected, nor that there was a mistake that needed to be corrected.
"When a person or a family is looking for a place to call home, the process that will approve or deny their application shouldn't be a secret," said Senator David Frockt, who sponsored the bill. "This law requires all landlords to follow what is essentially a best-practice for the industry, and should increase transparency and help make the screening process both more accurate and more fair."
Under the provisions of the new law, landlords that accept application payments would be required to disclose what type of information would be included in a tenant screening report, and what criteria could result in the denial of an application. The landlord would also need to share the name and address of the screening agency, so that tenants know where to go to correct erroneous information in a report. Finally, if a landlord decides to pursue an adverse action such as denying tenancy or imposing different fees or rules on an applicant, they would be required to provide an "adverse action notice," explaining the reasoning behind the decision. "This law is a compromise between tenant and landlord groups," said Michele Thomas with the Washington State Low Income Housing Alliance. "Landlords can and should have access to a high quality report on prospective tenants. But tenants should also have the right to see what's in those reports, to know what factors are being considered, and to know why they're being denied tenancy or having to pay an extra security deposit."
"This law is a step in the right direction in addressing the lack of transparency in tenant screening reports,” said Jonathan Grant, Executive Director of the Tenants Union. “But we still have a long way to go to fix the problems in this system. For example, the bill didn’t address the misleading way that tenant screening companies report eviction records. Even if a tenant was wrongfully named in an eviction lawsuit, they leave court with a permanent mark against them merely because they were named in the lawsuit. That makes it much harder, and sometimes impossible, to rent again in the future." Examples of wrongful evictions can include domestic violence survivors who break a lease in accordance with the law in order to flee an abuse; tenants with disabilities asserting the rights to a reasonable accommodation that is needed to meet the lease terms but is instead sued for eviction, or tenants asserting the right to "repair and deduct" to fix a serious problem that the landlord has failed to address. "Tenants who are wrongfully sued for eviction -- and win -- may still be denied housing time and again, which has a chilling effect on other renters who are taught never to avail themselves of their rights."
A similar situation is the case of a landlord who is foreclosed on, which can result in the tenant being evicted by the bank as part of the changeover process. "The tenant had the bad luck to have a landlord who couldn't keep up with their mortgage," said Bruce Neas with Columbia Legal Service. "And because of that, not only do they get evicted by the new owner, they can't even move into a new apartment because they have an eviction on their record."
Another area of concern revolves around the treatment of victims of domestic violence. "Important domestic violence protections were taken out at the last minute," noted Linda Olsen with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Finding and keeping housing is one of the greatest barriers to safety and stability faced by victims of domestic violence. More work needs to be done to ensure that the records of court orders intended to provide protection don't further victimize violence survivors instead."
Recognizing that the work is not done, the law creates a stakeholder group that will meet during the interim to discuss areas of improvement such as the high costs to tenants who repeatedly have to pay for screening reports with each application for housing, and the content of the reports. This group includes tenant advocates, affordable housing advocates, landlord and tenant screening lobbyists and they will present their findings to the Legislature next winter.
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The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance works to ensure that all Washington residents have the opportunity to live in safe, healthy, and affordable homes in thriving communities. We do this through advocacy, education and organizing. Our organizational members and individual supporters come from every community in Washington State.