Should Landlords Run Criminal Background Checks?

A credit check establishes whether an applicant is willing and able to pay rent. For most landlords, running criminal background checks on prospective residents is also a mandatory step in the rental process. However, property owners and managers should find a balance between their safety need and HUD’s inclination to make finding a home easier for people with criminal records.

Laura CalugarViolent crime rates increased in 2016 according to the most recent data released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with the U.S. violent crime rate growing by 3.4 percent from the year before. Fortunately, property crime saw a modest decrease in 2016. With roughly 2,450 property crime incidents per 100,000 inhabitants, last year had the lowest property crime rate in the past two decades. Property crime fell 1.3 percent compared to 2015 figures. This definitely doesn’t mean that landlords or property managers should relax and make criminal background screenings just a formality.

An increasing number of cities have passed ordinances specifically requiring landlords to check their prospective and current residents’ criminal history. Landlords’ failure to screen residents might be considered as negligence by the court of law. Moreover, landlords could be liable for any harm or damages an unscreened resident causes, should they turn out to be troubling.

For a fee, many companies offer investigative services to check the criminal history of a potential renter. There also are online resident screening services that will provide you the necessary information within minutes. Just make sure that wherever you are receiving your information from is Fair Credit Reporting Act compliant.

Individual evaluation

Confirming an applicant’s information with a criminal report is a practical way to verify their history. However, conducting a background check should definitely be an individualized process. If an applicant explains a situation on his application form, you should certainly take into account factors such as how long ago the conviction occurred, the nature of the criminal conduct and what the applicant has done since that time.

Not all details of criminal history need to result in the rejection of a resident. For example, if you are interviewing someone with an old conviction for property damage, you could still give them a chance, but could use the crime as a reason to ask for a larger security deposit.

Discriminatory policy or not?

Many landlords have policies against renting to people with criminal records. Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development made it easier for people with criminal records to find housing. The guidance states that landlords and home sellers who turn down renters or buyers based on their criminal records may violate the Fair Housing Act. This act requires that no landlord can clearly discriminate based on “protected classes” (such as religion, disability, race, color, national origin, gender or familial status). If your policy unfairly impacts a protected class, then it may be considered discriminatory.

So you might want to overlook a youthful indiscretion in order to prevent being accused of discrimination. According to the most recent HUD regulation, landlords who reject applicants based on prior arrests without a conviction will have a hard time proving a legitimate threat to safety. However, you should definitely avoid any resident with a serious criminal record because accepting a known criminal could pose a safety risk. If an applicant’s background check turns up criminal records such as domestic violence, sexual predators, drug dealing or other violent acts, you might be putting your property and the neighborhood at risk.

Landlords should definitely try to find a way to give people with criminal convictions a second chance without jeopardizing the safety of others.


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