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Tenant background checks: What’s missing from Renters’ Bill of Rights

Updated: May 1, 2023

By Monti Taylor


Tenant screening companies like RealPage and RentGrow offer a variety of services and tech solutions to the entire rental housing sector. They profit from the extraction of personal data which is used to exploit already marginalized identities. This practice is a core component of digital capitalism–the interactions of digital surveillance, digital platforms and capitalism (Sadowski, 2020). As sociologist Sadowski (2020) explains, these companies operate as outsourced, techno consultants. They work in partnership with housing providers and government departments to oversee and control the public and private rental housing market.


Far from fair or objective, tenant screening services systematically block protected classes from housing. They target socioeconomic characteristics (i.e., criminal records, rental history, bad credit history/scores, eviction records, etc.) to construct tenant screening reports as a part of the rental application process. Some reports incorporate the use of AI Scores to determine which prospective tenants have an established baseline of deservingness for housing. These technologies of social control are grounded in racializing surveillance practices that aim to shape social relationships and institutions in ways that disadvantage people of color with different benefits and access for different groups (Browne, 2015).


The way some online advertising algorithms work also exemplifies how personal data and information can be used to further exploit marginalized groups. For example, Cottom (2017) uncovered that “unemployment insurance” was among the for-profit colleges’ top five targeted search elements. This means that when someone would search these keywords, they would also be exposed to the college’s advertisements for enrollment upon their search. In this instance, unemployment insurance created a categorical group ripe to target for market participation under the disguise of inclusivity–despite the fact that it may not be what they need or what is good for them in the long run.


Mom-and-pop landlords and larger professional housing providers have screening policies that also deny rental applications based on socioeconomic data such as rental history, civil court records, criminal records, evictions, and low-credit scores. Some housing providers require a prospective tenant to complete a rental application before they even have the opportunity to view the housing unit in person. This requirement allows landlords to efficiently screen out applicants at the point of inquiry.


Through organizing, activism, and fair housing enforcement, many people try to resist the outright impediment of their right to fair housing, but many households are still denied access to rent in neighborhoods every day throughout the United States. This is quite different from the ways privileged, affluent families make choices about housing; they have the ability to choose homes in neighborhoods that are zoned for the best schools (Hagerman, 2018).


Federal and government agencies tasked with advancing fair housing have provided guidance and recommendations to address discrimination in the rental market. The White House addressed algorithmic discrimination, specifically the disparate impact that eviction records have on housing outcomes, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has addressed fair housing violations related to criminal records. However, this is not enough. Access to housing is still framed as a commodity rather than a human right.


Access to housing is produced through privilege claiming strategies that disadvantage those who do not conform to ideal values of tenant “worthiness” across race, gender, and status. Real, inclusive housing policy is needed to protect tenant rights–among other factors like capping application fees, elimination of administration fees, and increasing clean, safe, and affordable housing stock. Real, inclusive housing policies would prevent housing providers from using prospective tenants’ entire history of consumer data to make predictions about their futures.


Public-private partnerships could support a national rent-guarantee program modeled after Liberty Rent, an intermediary that partners with housing providers to serve as a financial guarantor for applicants who have been denied through the traditional tenant screening process. The outcomes of this program shows hope for what an inclusive rental ecosystem could look like—prioritizing income over historic credit data. But, this program also has its limitations. Enrollment in the program is not inclusive, as housing providers can choose which “denied applicant” is worthy of a second chance.


Put another way, in order to reimagine the default settings of tenant screening, we must first address individual perceptions that become the institutional biases which screen out marginalized identities as a part of its core processes.

References

Browne, S. (2015). Dark matters: On the surveillance of blackness. Duke University Press.

https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11cw89p

Cottom, T. M. (2017). Black cyberfeminism: Intersectionality institutions and digital

sociology. In T. M. Cottom, J. Daniels, & K. Gregory (Eds.), Digital sociologies (1st ed., pp. 211-232). Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1t89cfr.20

Hagerman, M. A. (2018). White kids: Growing up with privilege in a racially divided

America. NYU Press.

Sadowski, J. (2020). Too smart: How digital capitalism is extracting data, controlling our

lives, and taking over the world. The MIT Press. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/12240.001.0001




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