Putting people over technology when it comes to tenant screening
Tenant screening has always been a vitally important part of landlording and property management that has become all the more relevant in the age of COVID. Of course, we live in a digital age and while technology plays a part in tenant screening, it is no panacea. And the cloth cuts both ways.
On the one hand, California has a culture of amnesty and forgiveness that stands to conceal rental risks because there might be certain blemishes on a prospective tenant’s record that cannot be found or are “off limits.” On the other hand, the technological marvel of court records and tenant screening reports can be riddled with clerical errors, mix-ups, misleading or downright false information.
The result of this faulty data is that good people become pariahs not only banished from many housing opportunities; the stain can undermine chances to land a new job, impact insurance rates, and generally have an adverse effect on any activity that depends on good credit.
Could you beat an expert bowman billed as The World's Greatest Archer? We can guarantee it.
The renowned sales trainer and motivational speaker, the late Zig Ziglar, made the preposterous statement that anyone with reasonable eyesight could hit the bulls-eye more consistently than Howard Hill, the greatest archer of all time, with one slight caveat: you blindfold Howard Hill.
The analogy for landlords and property managers is that they can essentially be blinded to rental risks. The proverbial target is an excellent tenant, but the rental applicant’s history can be masked. How can you shoot at a target you can’t see?
Prophetic lawmakers wanted to ensure that renters who have fallen on tough times during the pandemic are not victimized twice.
AB 3088 was an early piece of legislation enacted to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic. Buried in the 20,000+ words of the law: eviction judgments in non-payment of rent cases filed between March 4, 2000 - January 31, 2021, will be concealed and not publicly available, irrespective of the outcome.
The public policy behind this, of course, is that given the terrible toll taken on Californians once COVID reared its ugly head, the calamity shouldn’t be made even worse when a renter is denied housing later on because he or she wasn’t able to meet their rent obligations during this tumultuous period.
However a necessary component to stabilize tenancies during the pandemic, the cloaking of eviction actions is not a new concept.
Rewind to 2017, when lawmakers approved AB 2819 in order to protect the privacy, credit, and reputation of tenants who are embroiled in an eviction lawsuit. Under this legislation, unlawful detainer actions are permanently sealed from the public unless the landlord is able to obtain a judgment within 60 days of the eviction action being commenced.
The quarrel we had with the law at the time was that any tenants’ attorney worth their salt could delay the eviction for 60 days through all manner of demurrers without regard to the merits of the case. What this means is that through clever smoke and mirrors, the history of a non-paying tenant will avoid detection by future landlords.
Enter the pandemic and a clogged, dysfunctional court system. Delays can be expected even without the obstructive tactics of tenants’ attorneys.
Credit bureaus and “ban the box”-type laws offer a clean slate, as well.
The National Consumer Assistance Plan is a cooperative initiative between the three major credit bureaus with the intention of making credit reports more transparent, accurate, and easily digestible.
One consequence of this effort is that civil judgments can go unidentified.
Several municipalities also have “second chance” laws that prohibit landlords from inquiring about a criminal background with the goal that ex-offenders are not stigmatized and can be assimilated back into society.
Bottom line: Some balance has to be struck.
Our community should understand that people change and everyone deserves a second chance, but so, too, should rental housing providers be given transparent information to make the most informed decision when evaluating rental applications.
The past doesn’t equal the future, but it can be an indicator. We know that the recidivism rate for certain types of behavior is high, but we need to look at the individual.
Undeniably, there are many landlords who are close-minded and refuse to rent to those with a checkered past. If we are unable to change the hearts and minds of those rental housing providers, Bornstein Law needs to at least remind landlords and property managers of fair housing laws that must be complied with, and note that there is an ever-expanding group of “protected classes.” When it comes to explaining why a tenancy is denied, less communication is better. Stating that another applicant was found is enough.
Tenant screening tools can be helpful, but technology cannot be used as a crutch. Call us old-fashioned, but there is no substitute to getting to know someone and using some personal sleuthing to get a glimpse into who the renter is. Calling past landlords and cutting through the chase by asking, “would you rent to them again?” Is the rental applicant, even if set back from the pandemic, now gainfully employed? When they view the apartment, are there fast-food wrappers and other trash strewn in their car?
When it comes to tenant screening, we value people over technology that can haunt would-be good renters and give misinformation to their would-be landlords.