Every year, 3.6 million people across the country — disproportionately Black and Latinx women — experience an eviction filing. Evictions are not an episodic event — people with an eviction record have a harder time accessing safe and affordable housing opportunities, regardless of the outcome of the eviction case. Landlords who rely on tenant screening tools to derive a tenant’s rental history, such as tenant screening reports, often refuse to rent to prospective tenants because of the existence of an eviction filing in their rental history. These records remain easily accessible to the public and tenant screening companies, even when the filing does not lead to an eviction or is resolved in a tenant’s favor. In addition, these screening companies’ scoring algorithms are opaque, leaving tenants with little recourse to contest a bad score, while the reports themselves are filled with inaccuracies.
Even if the information on the record is accurate, a payment that is late by a few days becomes a record that lasts years into the future, punishing tenants by locking them out of decent housing for years to come. Eviction records are often just a brief snapshot of a person going through a difficult period. Tenants can recover from an illness, job loss, or family death, but the eviction record will follow them, trapping them in substandard housing or preventing access to better job opportunities that require them to relocate. Tenants are often punished for exercising their legal right to withhold rent for repairs, resulting in an eviction filing. The tenant ends up with a permanent blemish on their record because the landlord failed to uphold their end of their agreement by providing a safe and habitable home. Tenants are caught up in dangerous cycles of poverty as a result of policies that make these records easy to incur and difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of, despite the fact that studies have shown that the use of background checks are ineffective at predicting a successful tenancy.
Tenants across the country are increasingly demanding stronger tenant screening protections and eviction record sealing policies that make it difficult for an eviction to influence a person’s housing stability into the far future. As a result of these demands, policymakers are exploring and passing policies that dismantle the significant barriers eviction records create for access to stable and healthy housing, by regulating public access to such records and creating restrictions for how they can be used in rental decisions for prospective tenants. Eviction record sealing policies and tenant screening regulations help protect tenants from the adverse, long-term impacts of an eviction record on housing and economic opportunities.
Terms used for eviction record sealing may vary depending on the jurisdiction and the stage of the process the protection applies to. Eviction record sealing policies usually obscure eviction records from the public. Some eviction record sealing policies may include exceptions that allow the record to remain accessible to key parties, like a tenant’s attorney or legal representative, and academic researchers. Other policies may function to deny specific parties access to certain tenant information. Some policies take the form of expungements, which remove the eviction record from a court’s record-keeping system completely; then there are vacated eviction cases, which means that the eviction judgment has been set aside or annulled. Eviction records can be sealed at the point of filing after a proceeding has ended, or a judgment has been made.
Landlords regularly rely on tenant screening companies, which will package an applicant’s credit history, criminal history, and eviction records into a format that gives a quick indication to a landlord whether they should rent to a prospective tenant, without additional nuance or detail. Tenant screening processes often cause critical delays for tenants searching for housing, and causes tenants with fewer resources to pay more in rental application fees. Tenant screening regulations prevent, restrict, or clarify the power landlords and tenant screening companies have to utilize background information, like eviction, credit, or criminal history records from adversely impacting tenants. Tenant screening protections will typically apply at the earlier stages of the process that landlords utilize when renting out a unit and screening prospective applicants and often incorporate a host of directives, prohibitions, or requirements for landlords.
Tenant screening protection policies can take various forms:
- Requiring landlords to provide uniform screening criteria to every prospective tenant who is applying to live in a unit
- Proscribe the type of criteria that a landlord can consider utilizing when evaluating an applicant’s potential tenancy
- Mandating that a landlord take a holistic approach when evaluating the potential of an applicant’s tenancy by giving weight to other circumstances besides an applicant’s credit, criminal, or eviction history
- Prohibit screening policies that reject a tenant’s application to a unit solely as a result of an applicant’s credit, criminal, or eviction record history
- Establish a shorter look-back period that landlords can consider when screening a prospective tenant
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the federal government allows screening companies to report eviction records that are up to seven years old. Prospective landlords and property managers are also required to notify tenants if a tenant screening report or credit report was used in their decision to deny housing. If a tenant requests to know why they were denied housing, landlords and property managers are also required to provide contact information for the tenant screening company used, notify applicants of their right to dispute the information, and notify applicants of their entitlement to a free copy of their screening report within 60 days of their denial. However, landlords often do not make tenants aware of these rights and keep their own screening criteria, or the information they used to make a decision, ambiguous.
When tenants attempt to exercise their rights under FCRA after finding errors in tenant screening reports, tenant screening companies are seldom responsive to a tenant’s requests to correct a record. State and local laws that regulate the screening protocols that landlords use, regulate the type of information tenant screening companies can include in reports, and restrict landlord and tenant screening companies’ access to eviction records, can help enforce FCRA.
Recently, the Biden Administration released a Blueprint for a Renter's Bill of Rights that highlights continued efforts on behalf of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to hold tenant screening companies accountable to releasing accurate information and abiding by existing laws like the Fair Housing Act.
In addition to PolicyLink resources listed to the right, see Upturn, TechEquity, Center for American Progress, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the National Consumer Law Center for additional materials and resources on sealing eviction records and regulating tenant screening practices.