New York has a unique way of conducting tenant screening for housing. New York's Office of Court Administration releases housing court information to tenant screening businesses. Landlords utilize this data to decide whether to rent to applicants who have consented to a background check. Those with poor payment histories or evictions are on the “tenant blacklist.” Landlords know the eviction process may take several months and thus avoid riskier applications, particularly when housing demand is strong.
The Case of Mrs. Miller
Margot Miller was homeless for several years before surprisingly receiving notification of her eligibility for an apartment designated for older adults with lower incomes. Upon visiting the leasing office, a background check was completed and the property manager informed her that she actually did not qualify. Her credit score and criminal history were both fine at the time; however, she had been sued in a housing court eviction by a landlord several years earlier. She had owed past-due rent on a lease and the living conditions were poor, with holes in the ceiling, water leaks, and other problems. She elected to move out while facing eviction and was unaware of the long-term consequences. She now says the blacklist has “taken my life away from me.”
Housing Court Data
Many housing lawyers have confirmed that the blacklist is notoriously inaccurate, often including tenants on the list who had actually prevailed in their housing court cases. This would include tenants who withheld rent when ownership did not address poor housing conditions or maintenance problems. Councilman Benjamin Kallos proposed a solution that would require screening companies to also report the case details to improve data accuracy. Thus far, these efforts have been unsuccessful.
Pending Bill in New York City Council
Council is currently evaluating Bill #85, which would no longer allow landlords to disqualify tenants based only on blacklist data. The Administrative Code would be revised to include housing court information as among the “protected classes,” according to civil rights provisions. Currently, landlords may not base decisions regarding potential tenants on factors including race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. It would be unlawful for decisions to solely be based on “landlord-tenant action or housing court proceedings, except when the tenant did not satisfy the terms of an order in such actions.” Frank Ricci with the Rent Stabilization Association, which advocates for landlords, is opposed to the measure because he finds the tenant-screening lists to be one of the critical factors necessary in tenant evaluation.
Those found to have unlawfully discriminated against a tenant exclusively based on housing court data would face civil penalties. The size of the fees would increase based on the number of violations. Those with less than five violations would be penalized $100 per housing unit per month. The penalties then escalate to $250, then $500, capping a maximum of $5,000. Landlords who report violations voluntarily are eligible for a penalty waiver, or to have the fines reduced by 50%.