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Locked Out

Senator Calls for Review of Powerful Tenant Screening Industry

The move comes after a Markup and New York Times series revealed screening agencies relying on faulty information to deny people homes

Photograph of Senator Sherrod Brown at a podium with a nameplate that says "MR. BROWN CHAIRMAN"
Sen. Sherrod Brown, chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, at a hearing on Sept. 28, 2021. Kevin Dietsch/AFP via Getty Images

The chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs has renewed calls for a federal review of the tenant screening industry, which performs background checks on potential renters—sometimes relying on faulty information to effectively deny people homes. 

In a letter last week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) detailed his committee’s findings on tenant reports from 10 companies, stating that “a significant number” contained inaccurate information. Citing, among other stats, findings from an investigation by The Markup and The New York Times in his letter, Brown urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new director, Rohit Chopra, to examine the industry.

“For families that live paycheck to paycheck, being denied housing as a result of a screening report’s inaccuracies could strain much needed resources and deplete a household’s savings,” Brown said.

His letter comes on the heels of an ongoing series by The Markup and The New York Times highlighting how the tenant screening industry sometimes blacklists potential renters by labeling them as higher risk tenants while relying on faulty information about their past. 

The Markup’s investigation found that renters can be denied housing because of prior erroneous eviction notices and years-old mislabeled criminal records for infractions as minor as a speeding ticket. 

Latinos in particular may be affected by incorrect information because of common last names; data from the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, shows that 12 million Latinos in the country share fewer than 30 last names. Backgrounding systems can also struggle with multiple last names, which are common among Latinos.

“We received the letter, and we will remain in dialogue with Congress regarding the accuracy of tenant screening reports,” Tia Elbaum, spokesperson for the CFPB, said.

Earlier this year, six senators cited The Markup and The New York Times’ work in a letter to the CFPB that raised these issues. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Edward Markey (D-MA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) expressed concern about racial aspects of the tenant screening inaccuracies.

“We are particularly concerned that communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by job losses in the pandemic, and have historically been precluded from homeownership, will be the hardest hit” by faulty screening, their letter said. 

Brown’s letter to Chopra noted potential racial disparities in data concerning evictions. The banking committee’s inquiry, like The Markup’s, found that eviction notices that didn’t result in a renter being actually evicted were still included in some screening reports.

“This is particularly problematic for low-income, women, and Black renters who experience a higher rate of eviction filings than white renters,” he said.

Housing rights advocates are particularly concerned about how renters will be affected in the coming years by evictions that happened during the pandemic, when financial strain left many unable to afford their rent.

In addition to a review, Brown requested that Chopra’s agency “use its authorities to the fullest extent possible to protect renters.” 

Update

This article has been updated to include a response from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was received after presstime.

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