How to Screen Tenants Legally and Avoid Discrimination

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As a property owner, you need to be diligent, practical and considerate in order to avoid tenant lawsuits. Although it might take some time, tenant screening services are really imperative to monitor any potential tenant prior to putting your house up for rent. However, sometimes tenants may claim that they face housing discrimination, so it is important to be cautious when analyzing a tenant credit check, background history and criminal record.

What is discrimination?

Merriam-Webster defines discrimination as “the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people.As stated by the fair housing & non-discriminatory rules, landlords must exercise precise tenant screening services that will prevent discrimination against tenants in a range of key areas. Here are the types of discrimination you should be aware of:

Race: Both subtle and overt racial discrimination is prohibited by law. Overt racial discrimination is less common and involves clearly stating that a person of a specific race will not be provided housing. More common is subtle discrimination in which the landlord may turn away potential tenants of a specific race.

Nationality: Favoritism towards those arriving from a particular country is prohibited, and so is denying a potential tenant from a specific nation. In several states, when screening potential tenants, it’s against the law to ask a tenant about their citizenship or immigration status. It is also against the law to require citizen or immigration papers from only individuals from a specific country.

Religion: Rejecting a tenant on the  grounds of their religion or giving precedence to those of a specific religion is prohibited by law.

Age/Family Status: Landlords cannot deny a potential occupant based upon his/her age or family status. This means a landlord must consider a woman for tenancy irrespective of whether she is single, pregnant and/or has children. Allocating an unreasonably low tenancy limit for a property (i.e 2 people for a 2 bedroom apartment) is illegal as well, unless the landlord can show that the apartment or home cannot house more tenants due to the infrastructure. In addition, the same rules regarding tenancy must be applied to all tenants regardless of their age.

Disabilities: Rejecting a rental candidate based upon his/her physical or mental disabilities is prohibited as well. While screening potential tenants, the property owners should not ask if the rental candidate has a disability or demand to see their health records. Those in a rehabilitative state may not be denied because of past substance abuse unless they have been convicted for drug dealing or manufacturing.

That said, there are several legitimate and permissible reasons that a property owner can (and ought to) deny a rental candidate to find more favorable candidates. These permissible reasons include:

Tenant income: If the monthly rental fee is over 1/3rd of a candidate’s confirmed monthly income and the tenant has high monthly bills or is behind on bills, you may conclude that the person could be at a higher risk of failing to pay for the rental unit on time.

Poor references from past landlords: An unsatisfactory track record with other property-owners is an obvious red flag, and a legitimate reason to deny tenancy.

Poor credit and several debts: A credit account or tenant credit check can help a proprietor in screening tenants and gain insight into the credit record of potential tenants. Those with high debt and a record of late or missing payments could possibly become troublesome renters.

Criminal convictions: A criminal record is another legitimate reason for saying ‘NO’ to a tenant. Keep in mind that you should consider the type of offense, how long ago the conviction took place and what the person may have done since the conviction to rehabilitate.

Property-owners can protect themselves from unanticipated discrimination claims by following these simple guidelines when they monitor tenants. An excellent tenant screening service can provide support in uncovering red flags that can cause a tenant to get rejected.

Lastly, keep in mind to treat everybody equally.  Give everyone the same information regarding your vacancies, screen all the potential tenants legally, and avoid basing your decision on discriminatory factors.

  • AAOA

    The American Apartment Owners Association, a valued partner of TenantAlert, provides free rental applications and other forms. Visit us at http://www.AAOA.com