As a landlord, conducting a criminal background check on potential tenants is a crucial part of the tenant screening process. Criminal records can provide valuable insights into a tenant’s character and past behavior, helping you make informed decisions about whether to approve or deny a rental application. However, the use of criminal records in tenant screening has been a topic of debate in recent years, as it can have a significant impact on housing opportunities for individuals with criminal records.

The reality is that having a criminal record can make it challenging for individuals to secure safe and affordable housing. Many landlords and property managers are reluctant to rent to tenants with criminal records, as they may be perceived as a risk to other tenants or the property itself. This can result in discrimination against individuals with criminal records, limiting their housing opportunities and perpetuating cycles of poverty and recidivism. State and local governments have begun to notice this problem, and to take action. A large, permanent class of people with no ability to find housing is a significant social issue.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. It does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on criminal history. But if a policy is shown to have disparate racial impacts, it can be the basis for a lawsuit. Some minorities are more likely to be arrested than others — so should arrests be used in making a rental decision? Most employers do not use arrest data for that very reason, looking at convictions only. Beyond this, many states and cities have far stricter rules. Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, and Newark and many other cities do not allow landlords to automatically deny a rental application based on criminal history. Others have implemented their own version of “ban the box”, where no questions about criminal history can be asked on the initial application. Landlords and property managers must tread carefully when considering criminal records in tenant screening, as they risk violating fair housing laws if they use criminal history as the sole basis for denying rental applications.

One way to avoid discrimination while still using criminal history in tenant screening is by considering the nature of the crime and how recent it was. For example, a landlord may be justified in denying a rental application if the applicant has a recent conviction for a violent crime or drug-related offense. However, denying an application based on a minor or non-violent offense from many years ago may be unjustified.

You may also consider mitigating factors, such as evidence of rehabilitation, employment history, and references from previous landlords. If an applicant can provide evidence that they have taken steps to turn their life around and become a responsible member of society, that may be a reason to overlook a criminal record.

It’s important to be consistent in your approach to tenant screening and to have clear guidelines in place for what types of criminal records will result in denial of a rental application. This can help prevent accusations of discrimination and ensure that all applicants are treated fairly.

While criminal background checks are an important part of tenant screening, they can have a significant impact on housing opportunities for individuals with criminal records. Landlords and property managers must navigate this issue carefully to avoid discrimination and ensure that all applicants are treated fairly. By considering the nature of the crime, mitigating factors, and partnering with community organizations, landlords can help provide safe and affordable housing for individuals with criminal records while still maintaining the safety and security of their properties.

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