Monday, April 12, 2010
The New York Times ran a fascinating piece last week about tenant blacklisting. Turns out there are over 600 firms in the country that collect and sell to landlords the names of people who've been in housing court eviction proceedings. More startling, to me, is that at least in New York City, the courts themselves are selling the names to these firms. (To quote the Times, "As soon as an eviction case is put on the calendar by a clerk or lawyer, New York’s housing court system sells the names of tenants to screening companies. The court has sold case information since 1990.")
There are so many troubling things about this practice that it's difficult to know where to begin.
First, no distinction is made between tenants who are vindicated in court and those who aren't -- all are blacklisted. The chilling effect on tenants who might otherwise rightfully withhold rent are obvious.
Second, names are collected -- so people with the same name as someone who once appeared in housing court are blacklisted. But until recently, at least, they had no right to discover why their application to rent was denied.
Third, one of the most pernicious effects of the foreclosure crisis has been the eviction of blameless tenants. When a property is foreclosed upon, leases are terminated -- even if the tenant has never missed a rent payment. The practice is so normatively objectionable that the sheriffs of several major counties -- including, at various times, Cuyahoga, Cook and Wayne (homes to Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit, respectively) -- have refused to carry out evictions of blameless tenants. Nonetheless, such tenants' names may be added to the blacklists, so that not only are they evicted through no fault of their own, but they may be unable to find another place to rent.
Last, it is morally objectionable, in my opinion, that a housing court would have a profit interest in blacklisting tenants. Nothing can or should prevent the companies from gathering the information for themselves, but courts have no business participating for profit in a practice that chills access by rightful claimants.
Fortunately, the New York City City Council just passed the Tenant Fair Chance Act, which requires landlords to disclose which companies they plan to use for background checks on potential tenants. Tenants can then order their files from the companies, and at least have the chance to correct inaccuracies.
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