Screened out by automated background checks, tenants who face eviction can be denied housing for years to come.
By Megan Kimble
December 9, 2020
Last year, Jona Perales was evicted from an apartment they shared with their stepdad in southwest Dallas after failing to pay rent. Since then, Perales has applied at hundreds of places—apartments, second-chance housing, rooms for rent—only to be denied. “The landlord must have put my name somewhere else or something, like a blacklist,” they say. “Like some sort of blacklist that I don’t know about.” In February, they moved into an extended-stay motel in Arlington.
In mid-March, Perales started to cough and feel feverish. Amid a national shortage of COVID-19 tests, they couldn’t get tested for the coronavirus, so they couldn’t qualify for sick pay from their employer, Uber, and their account was suspended. As the pandemic spread across Texas, some cities passed eviction moratoriums intended to keep people like Perales sheltered—but those protections didn’t extend to motels. So Perales moved out of their room and began living in their car.
They eventually started working for the U.S. Census Bureau and saved up nearly $2,000, including the $317 Uber eventually offered Perales in sick pay, but they still couldn’t find a place to live. “I had all that money and I couldn’t even get a room in a house,” they say. “That was really disheartening. I am kind of just marked, for what feels like years. And nobody is going to want to give me a chance because of that one mistake on my record.”
When someone applies for an apartment, a landlord usually runs a background check through one of hundreds of private tenant screening companies. These companies produce automated reports about a prospective renter by aggregating criminal and civil court records with credit history and other publicly available data. Some reports include detailed information about a renter’s history; others provide a ranking, or simply recommend a landlord accept or deny an application. A record of an eviction is usually enough to flag an application for denial.
In Texas, tenants who are evicted—because they cannot pay rent, because they don’t show up to court, or because they don’t know their rights—have little recourse when it comes to clearing their rental history. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act allows tenant screening companies to access and report eviction court records for up to seven years, which means long after someone has moved out and gotten a new job or otherwise started to rebuild their financial life, an eviction will continue to haunt them.
But while most landlords will deny a prospective tenant if they see an eviction on their record, many don’t distinguish between an eviction filing and an eviction judgment. That means even if an eviction was filed unlawfully—say, in retaliation against someone requesting repairs or against a victim of domestic violence—and a judge dismisses the case, a future landlord can see that a tenant was sued for eviction and use that as a basis to deny their application.
“Tenant screening is sort of the Wild West of Big Data: lots of money to be made, very little oversight, and a lot of people getting hurt,” says Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University-Newark and a research fellow at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
Long before COVID-19 put millions of people out of work, eviction was a national crisis. According to data compiled by Eviction Lab, one of every 40 renter households had experienced eviction between 2000 and 2016. But this summer, as tenant protections began to expire, a report by the Aspen Institute found that as many as 40 million Americans—more than 40 percent of renters—were at risk for eviction as a result of the pandemic. The U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey found in November that roughly 30 percent of renters in Texas had “no or slight confidence” in their ability to meet their next rent payment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has halted eviction proceedings for most renters until the end of the year. Despite the order, landlords are still filing—and winning—eviction cases in courts across the state. In Harris County, for instance, between September 4, when the CDC order went into effect, and December 1, 6,290 evictions were filed. When the pandemic passes and life returns to something resembling normal, those eviction filings will remain on tenants’ records for years to come.
In June 2019, Ashley Nicole Thomas submitted a rental application to SYNC at Harmony, a tidy four-story apartment complex with a pool and fitness center in a suburb just north of Houston. Two days later, her application was denied; the apartment manager told her she had an eviction on her record, filed by her previous landlord.
But Thomas hadn’t been evicted from the apartment where she’d lived for a year starting in 2016. She’d given notice, paid her rent in full, and moved out in mid-2017. When Thomas disputed the eviction on her record and submitted another application, she once again was turned down and told to contact CoreLogic, one of the largest background screening companies in the United States. Finally, she heard from the property manager at her former apartment: The eviction that had appeared on her record actually belonged to another tenant with a similar name who had lived at the complex more than a year earlier.
In March of this year, Thomas sued CoreLogic, alleging that the company had violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by failing to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy” of the information it reported. Thomas is among at least seven renters in Texas—and more than 150 nationally, according to reporting by the Markup and the New York Times—who have filed cases against tenant screening companies since 2010, alleging that their reports contained false information about their rental or criminal history.
Background screening, which includes employee and tenant screening, is a vast, largely unregulated industry. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the nearly 2,000 background screening companies in operation throughout the country reel in $3.2 billion in revenue each year. Anyone with internet access can start a tenant screening company; they don’t have to register with any government agency and face little scrutiny.
Tenant screening companies pull records from various sources, but most eviction records are sourced from LexisNexis Risk Solutions, a massive data analytics company that compiles and maintains files on consumers across the country by scraping local court records digitally and through in-person court runners. The company then sells that data to tenant screening companies.
Until recently, LexisNexis sold civil judgment information—including eviction records—to the Big Three credit bureaus, TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian, which then included that information in their credit reports. But a series of class-action lawsuits alleged the credit bureaus reported inaccurate or out-of-date public records originating from LexisNexis. The Big Three stopped reporting civil judgments in 2018 and 2019, but according to a proposed class-action lawsuit filed against LexisNexis in May, the company has been selling that information directly to screening companies through its own consumer reports—without addressing the underlying quality-control issues.
Companies like CoreLogic “are putting the onus on the consumer—the consumer about whom the information is being collected—to make sure that there isn’t something that is erroneous,” says LaKisha Ledbetter-Anderson, the lawyer who represented Thomas. “But with tenants it’s difficult to know what’s on your rental history. You typically don’t know that there’s an issue until you go to apply for something. The ability to correct that information can prove more difficult than in other instances.”
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, landlords are required to tell tenants that they were denied because of a negative screening report and to name the company that produced it, but they don’t have to share the actual report. In practice, this means tenants who are denied housing often have no idea why.
Steve White, the CEO of RentPrep, a tenant screening company founded in 2007, says that his company is one of only a handful that employ human screeners to review records before they are sent to landlords and property managers. “If you’re screening somebody named Steve White, there are 2,700 Steve Whites in the country. Three of them are sex offenders. So if I were to run my report through an automated database, there’s going to be records that pop up that are not mine,” he says. “I would say the majority of the industry that serves private landlords in the screening industry are doing it in a broken system.”
Researchers at Eviction Lab recently analyzed 3.6 million court records and found that 22 percent of eviction filings “contain ambiguous information on how the case was resolved or falsely represent a tenant’s eviction history.” In 2016, fewer than half of the eviction cases filed in Texas resulted in an eviction, on par with the national rate. “If they’re only reporting that you had a case filed against you and they’re not reporting that the case was dismissed, then in my opinion, that kind of puts you in a false light,” says Eric Dunn, the director of litigation for the nonprofit National Housing Law Project and an expert in tenant screening.
Early in his career, as a legal aid attorney in Seattle, Dunn noticed that clients he’d represented in eviction cases would come back to him months later saying that their rental applications were being turned down; hadn’t they won? “That was pretty frustrating to me as someone doing eviction defense, because it kind of defeats the whole point. It’s more important for them to be able to get housing in the future,” he says. This changed how he advised clients, even those with cases he thought they could win. “If you fight this and it gets filed in court, then it’s going to create this electronic record of an eviction,” he’d tell people. “And that could be a problem for you renting in the future. Most people would say, ‘Well, then it’s not worth it.’”
LexisNexis, CoreLogic, and several other tenant screening companies contacted for this story either didn’t respond or declined to comment.
In early 2013, Anita Curtis left her Dallas apartment and took her son to a shelter for victims of domestic violence. In her absence, Curtis’ landlord filed for an eviction and won a judgment, claiming nearly $2,000 in unpaid rent. Curtis appealed the judgment in county court—and won. The case was dismissed, the judgment vacated.
But the eviction filing remained on her record. “That stopped me from getting a lot of places,” Curtis says. “Even though the judge made the ruling in my favor, what it showed was that someone filed for eviction. A lot of complexes or landlords, if they hear that you’ve been in a domestic violence situation that results in you having to leave a unit, they automatically go to, ‘Oh, she has issues or problems.’”
That’s not unusual, says Linda Morris, an attorney and fellow at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. Morris got involved with housing advocacy after working in emergency shelters for victims of domestic violence in Waco, Killeen, and Temple. “Many domestic violence victims are often unlawfully evicted because of the abuse that they’re experiencing,” she says.
Black women face disproportionately high rates of domestic violence; they are also more likely to experience eviction than white women or women of other races. On average, Black renters have evictions filed against them at nearly twice the rate of white renters, according to an analysis by the ACLU and Eviction Lab. Because of this, Morris argues that landlords who maintain blanket bans on tenants with prior eviction records disproportionately harm people of color, specifically Black women—in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits race- and gender-based discrimination in housing.
In 2017, the ACLU filed the first case challenging a landlord’s eviction screening policy under the Fair Housing Act. In recent years, judges have ruled that blanket bans on renters with criminal records violate the Fair Housing Act because Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. Now most housing providers—and the tenant screening companies that accept or deny applicants on their behalf—are required to at least review a prospective renter’s criminal history on a case-by-case basis.
“Tenant screening is sort of the wild west of big data: lots of money to be made, very little oversight, and a lot of people getting hurt.”
“We feel like you can apply the exact same logic to eviction records,” says Dunn, who was co-counsel on the ACLU case, which was settled in 2017. “Maybe you can look at somebody’s eviction record, but you can’t just exclude anybody with any kind of eviction record from rental housing.” But because eviction filings don’t include race or gender data, it’s hard to prove at a local level who is being affected by tenant screening policies that deny applicants with prior evictions.
Curtis said the pandemic has exposed how few rights tenants have in Texas—and how much power landlords have. “It’s going to be hard for everybody, everybody, who’s having these troubles,” she says. “You can say, ‘Because of COVID, I lost my job.’ A lot of these landlords and complexes don’t care. You are automatically excluded.”
Eviction will only compound the damage done by COVID-19, Morris says, especially in communities of color where Black and Hispanic Texans have been hit especially hard by the virus. “It’s just going to contribute to the widening of wealth gaps and the perpetuation of segregation in terms of where people of color are able to access housing,” she says. “That’s very much affected by the way that landlords implement these tenant screening policies.”
“You just hang on a wing and prayer,” Curtis says. “Whoever accepts you, you just pray that that rental history, as long as you pay your rent on time, will transmit to something better.”
Ten years ago, Yameko Frederick was evicted from an apartment she shared with her ex-boyfriend in Fort Worth. “We were having some problems in our relationship, and he was just like, ‘I don’t want to pay rent here,’” she says. Although she wasn’t on the lease, she was named as a co-occupant in the eviction judgment.
She hasn’t had a stable place to live since. She applied at apartment after apartment—spending as much as $150 for each application—only to be told that the complex didn’t accept people with prior evictions. The apartment she finally moved into was filthy, she says; she didn’t feel safe living there with her young son. Then she lost her job as a customer service representative at a call center, fell behind on rent, and was evicted again. “I feel like it creates a cycle,” she says. “You get that one eviction and then you end up in a substandard apartment complex and you have all these issues.”
Last summer, she moved into a homeless shelter with her two children, who are now 4 and 6. In February, she qualified for an apartment in a complex built for formerly homeless single mothers, and moved in March, just before COVID-19 started to spread.
“I think something that would help is if people can get evictions removed in some type of way,” Frederick says. “In no way am I saying that it’s OK for people to not pay their rent. But I felt like they put me in this cycle. I had this eviction, so all I could do was live in these really bad, crappy apartments. Maybe if I had just gotten forgiveness for that one eviction.”
In New York, as of 2019, it’s illegal to reject a renter because they’ve appeared in housing court. Tenants in California and Washington are protected by laws that seal eviction records until and unless a judge rules in favor of the landlord, protecting tenants from being blacklisted for eviction cases that were dismissed or withdrawn. Massachusetts legislators are considering a similar law. In 2017, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced the Tenant Protection Act, which, had it passed, would have amended the Fair Credit Reporting Act to prevent tenant screening companies from including housing court records that resulted in a judgment in favor of the tenant or were more than three years old.
Tenants in Texas, meanwhile, have few protections. Two bills filed in the 2019 legislative session would have required judges to seal eviction records when the case is dismissed or when an expunction is “in the interest of justice.” Neither bill made it out of committee.
The Texas Apartment Association, which lobbies on behalf of landlords, had concerns with the legislation as it was filed, says David Mintz, the association’s vice president of government affairs. He said that tenants are already protected under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, that it was unclear how the process of expunging records would be implemented, and that the bill’s language and standards were vague and subject to interpretation by different judges. “It’s important to keep in mind that every time you’re renting out a property, you’re having to take into account your ability to continue to meet your obligations as an owner, whether it be paying your taxes, paying your lenders, [or] keeping up the property,” he says.
Laredo Democrat Judith Zaffirini, the state senator who introduced one of the two bills last session, plans to reintroduce a version of it in the 2021 legislative session. “We must do our best to ensure the financial devastation wrought by this crisis does not burden our neighbors for the rest of their lives,” she wrote in an email.
In August, Jona Perales caught a break. A friend of a friend heard Perales was living in their car, gave them a laptop, and helped them enroll in a 10-week certification class for a job in IT. Now Perales is trying to focus on their schoolwork—along with the possibility of earning a salary—rather than worrying about the eviction on their record and the money they still owe their previous landlord. In September, Perales moved into a spare room in a house owned by an acquaintance. Although the house is in Krum, just outside Denton, Perales said they’re happy to be outside the metroplex. “Living in my car in Dallas was traumatizing,” they say.
The CDC eviction moratorium expires on December 31. A September report found that an estimated 1.4 million Texans were already behind on their rent and at risk of eviction. As months of back rent comes due, without any federal rental assistance, millions of people could lose their homes starting in January. The collateral damage of those evictions will reverberate for years.
“I had an eviction on my record,” Perales says. “It pretty much makes it impossible to find another place to live. I do not expect there to be enough second-chance housing to accommodate everybody that is going to get evicted because of COVID. It’s not even close.”