Recent Litigation Highlights Problems with Tenant Screening Algorithms

By Emily Rena-Dozier

Many landlords use tenant screening companies — like RealPage, AppFolio, and CoreLogic — to vet tenant applications for credit history, rental history, and criminal history. Unfortunately, while these services provide greater efficiency for landlords, they come with significant risks for tenants. As recent investigative reports have shown, these automated background checks are rife with errors. As a result, tenants may be denied housing based on records from other individuals who merely share a last name, or a previous address.

What recourse do tenants have when their applications are denied based on faulty information? Even if a tenant is able to determine what the error was, the time-sensitive nature of rental housing applications means that a landlord has often moved on to the next applicant by the time the problem is identified and corrected. Even identifying the error can be difficult; in Oregon, the landlord is only required to provide the tenant with the contact information for the screening service.

Tenant screening services — largely automated and algorithm-based — rely heavily on credit reports and scrape information from court records and other sources of public information. Although tenant screening companies are regulated under consumer protection laws, the rules are more lax for tenant screening than they are for other forms of credit reporting. Unlike with credit reports, there’s no central system that a tenant can consult for a copy of their screening record. This means that tenants may have no recourse other than to sue screening companies for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, or, in at least one current case, violations of the Fair Housing Act.

Consumer lawyers have an important role to play in advocating for stronger protections for tenants, greater regulation of the tenant-screening industry, and, where necessary, litigating on behalf of tenant applicants when screening errors have harmed them.