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WASHINGTON STATE LEADING THE NATION IN ADDRESSING TENANT SCREENING ISSUES
According to the Governor's office, at 2:00 PM today Governor Gregoire will sign into law the Fair Tenant Screening Act, a bill that will ensure that landlords disclose important information about what is included in tenant screening reports, as well as avenues for correcting erroneous information.
Governor Gregoire today will be signing into law the Fair Tenant Screening Act, a new law aimed at addressing serious and growing problems in the reports tenant screening companies prepare for landlords who are evaluating potential renters. These reports can contain misleading information or even information that is illegal for landlords to use as criteria for screening tenants, such as if the tenant was a victim of domestic violence, which in turn leads to tenants' applications being unfairly denied.
"When a person or a family is looking for a place to call home, they deserve to know more about the process that can either approve or deny their application. We worked very hard to get landlord and tenant groups behind this reform measure," said Sen. David Frockt, the bill's sponsor. "This is a bill that begins to solve what has become a real issue for some tenants, especially low-income tenants seeking to get into rental housing. My hope is that its passage will make it easier for people to find a home and correct errors to their screening reports."
"A tenant can win against their landlord in eviction court, but the second the lawsuit is filed they have already lost because a screening company will report just the mere filing," said Jonathan Grant with the Tenants Union. "This mark on their record - even for a tenant who prevailed - will cause them to be denied housing time and again, and teaches other renters never to avail themselves of their rights." Examples of wrongful evictions can include domestic violence survivors who break a lease in accordance with the law in order to flee an abuser; 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.
These evictions also include situations where a landlord was foreclosed on and the tenant was then 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."
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 legislation puts Washington State at the forefront of the nation in addressing concerns of consumer advocates about poorly regulated tenant screening services. "Modern information systems and database technology have profoundly transformed the tenant-screening process,” said Eric Dunn of the Northwest Justice Project, "people who apply for apartments can be turned down just because their personal histories don’t fit neatly into computer algorithms and desirability models. It’s important for a state with a high-tech economy like Washington to be a leader in addressing some of the problems that come with new technology.”
The legislation is an important step forward and represents significant progress on this issue, but there is still a long way to go. "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 portability, cost, and the content of reports. The group 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.