“Why should I care if they have been convicted of something? Time to do the right thing.”

housing
Photo by PoPville flickr user Beau Finley

“Dear PoPville,

I’m a (small-time) landlord and have been using an application template that asks potential renters about past convictions. Always thought that was a silly question since I judge potential applicants based on their rental history, assets, income, and credit score. If those are good, why should I care if they have been convicted of something? I’ve been meaning to white-out that question from my forms and now this article reminds me to do so.

“But blanket policies of refusing to rent to anybody with a criminal record are de facto discrimination, the department says — because of the systemic disparities of the American criminal justice system.”

So I am deleting the question today, which is something I knew I should have done a while ago. Time to do the right thing.”

44 Comment

  • justinbc

    Ok…? I’m a landlord, and while I wouldn’t ever base my decision solely on the fact that someone’s been convicted, I certainly wouldn’t ever want to not have that knowledge when evaluating multiple candidates simultaneously.

    • I also don’t really get this. If someone has been convicted of a violent crime, a sexual crime, drug crimes, and perhaps a great deal many other crimes, I think that might come in to play as a landlord. I agree in second chances probably more than anyone I know, but having recently had the experience of finding out a convicted, registered sex offender had been welcomed into my (and my children’s) midst has definitely made me rethink things relating to that. Risks need to be assessed in all situations.
      But hey, if you’re more concerned about getting your check than the potential for the person you are renting to abusing neighborhood kids, starting a drug den in your house, or any other number of things, more power to you. Free country and all.

      • How did you find out that a sex offender lives near you? Do you periodically check the registry?

        • In this case, it was not someone who lives near me, it was the new partner of one of the exes, who had unsupervised access to my partners kids. He made us feel uneasy, we googled, that’s the first thing that came up. I do, however, check the registry with some regularity in relation to geography.

          • anonymouse_dianne

            Well, I started using my full name (middle name) when submitting professional white papers because when I googled first name last name it was linked to a porn star in Australia. I would certainly be in favor of doing back ground checks, and I would hire a licensed property manager to do it. Good that you found out, but don’t believe everything you google.

          • Considering what came up was a link to his sex offender registry page, complete with current picture, car make/model and license plate, address, and nickname, I know I can rely on my google search in this case. However, if it makes you feel better, we also pulled the court records complete with the detective statements and his statements before making the decision to believe his version of events or not.
            Google is a search engine and should be used as such, not as a primary source verification but as a spring board for research.

  • I get the reasoning behind this, but the reason I’d be concerned is I live upstairs and rent out my downstairs unit. Having some petty offense like possession of drugs is one thing, but I would not feel comfortable having someone who had been convicted of a violent crime living in my house. That said, I do not ask that question on the rental application, but I do perform a criminal background check in addition to a credit check which I inform applicants of upfront.

  • anonymouse_dianne

    “Drop the Box” is the movement. Someone with a violent crime is likely still in jail. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the reason Obama and the pardonees went to Busboys and Poets for lunch is because they hire parolees. I have been there many times for a meal and always been treated graciously.

    • I had no idea busboys and poets dropped the box! I guess I can see why they don’t advertise it, but this is great to know and I will patronize them even more enthusiastically!

    • Convicted of a violent crime? In DC? Def still not in jail.

    • “someone with a violent crime is likely still in jail.” This is a stupid statement. They are in jail until they are not in jail.

  • If a tenant’s criminal history makes it foreseeable that they will commit similar crimes in the future, then it is “possible” for a landlord to be held liable for criminal acts that occur on the premises. That is why you should care.

    • What makes it foreseeable? # of convictions for similar things?

    • Yeah, it’s the same reason why universities and such haven’t embraced dropping the box, as I understand it. Not admitting people purely because of a conviction is discrimination, but not asking could be considered negligent.
      .
      I would also say that there is a difference if you are renting from a building than if you are renting a room/basement in your own home.

      • +1 to “I would also say that there is a difference if you are renting from a building than if you are renting a room/basement in your own home.” The risk to a small-time landlord (both financial and safety-wise) is much greater than the risk to a management company that operates one or more large buildings.

      • Negligent of what?

  • Dropping this question does little if you weren’t verifying the info via background check. But nice gesture, op.

    Plenty of criminals out there who’ve never been caught, so simply avoiding those with records in this less than stellar “justice” system is no guarantee of safety.

    Ultimately, you never know who you’re getting. Great references guy had trouble paying the rent while my bad credit tenants have paid on time for years. Do what makes you comfy.

  • I’m a landlord as well and I just check public records to make sure I’m not leasing to a rapist or previous rent judgements or anything related to housing etc. I don’t ask for criminal record on my lease application. I’ve never found anything worth not leasing to someone for.

  • HaileUnlikely

    I’m conflicted about this. Everybody has to live somewhere, including those with criminal records. I think it would be a reasonable compromise to prohibit the owner of a large commercial apartment building (leave it to others to define “large”) to deny somebody solely on the basis of a past conviction for which they’ve paid their fine / done their time /etc., but allow a landlord who is renting out their basement, or a room in their home, to take it into consideration.

    • Just like there are illegal rentals, I’m sure people are being excluded solely on criminal record. It’s the nature of the rental market.

    • I’m similarly conflicted.
      .
      Yes, ex-convicts need to live somewhere… but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to be concerned that someone who’s already committed a violent or nonviolent crime might do it again. (On the nonviolent-crime side… say your potential tenant has been convicted of fraud. What’s to say that he/she won’t try to defraud you too?)

    • Blithe

      I’m curious about your reasoning. It’s okay for a landlord (“small building”) to avoid whatever potential risks might be associated with renting to someone with a criminal record, but not okay for the other tenants living in close proximity to the renter and/or the landlord in the “large” building scenario to avoid these risks as well? I’m not disagreeing with you — more trying to understand your reasoning behind the “small”/ “large” distinction.

      • HaileUnlikely

        The distinction I intend to make, for reasons that honestly I am not entirely convinced of the soundness of, is between a person renting out a portion of his or her own home versus a business owner for which the provision of housing is a commercial enterprise in the traditional sense. I understand that legally it is also a commercial enterprise for an accountant or a bus driver to rent out his basement in the home where he or she lives, but to me a person renting out a portion of their home is just a fundamentally different thing from a business whose sole business is to manage apartments, and that a person renting out a part of the home where they also live should have a bit more latitude than a business whose sole reason to exist is to make money by renting out apartments. The distinction I really meant to make is “property owner and tenant live on the same premises as each other, and said premises is a dwelling that is designed to house a single family” versus otherwise, more than small versus large. Really, though, I’d be ok with applying this to all landlords – in full recognition that some would drop out of the market as a result.

        • Blithe

          Thanks for taking the time to respond to my questions! I don’t really have a stance on this, but after reading your earlier post, I was thinking of two types of obvious risks: financial risks and vulnerabilities, and social ones. I quite understand — and agree with your sense that someone renting out a part of the home where they live should have a bit of latitude. Where I got stuck though, is that it seems odd that the exact same landlord, who chose not to live next to a particular tenant for a specific reason could then rent to the exact same particular tenant in a larger building — right next door to me as a tenant. And further, as a tenant/neighbor, I’d have no access to the knowledge that the landlord would use in a different way on his/her own behalf. Again, I haven’t thought this through, but something about the landlord being able to put me (or tenant x) at risk as a rental tenant and neighbor as a business decision while being able to avoid those risks on his/her own behalf as a personal decision seems a little off. Thanks — again — for giving me an interesting perspective to think about!

        • This reasoning is why small owner occupied buildings don’t have to comply with 1960s housing discrimination laws (FHA?).

  • I rent out the English basement in my home. I absolutely run a background check to look for both criminal convictions and arrests. Former convicts may have to find housing somewhere but it most certainly will not be in the same house as my family.

  • I am a small time landlord. I once showed a room to a guy that had been convicted of robbery and assault. I didn’t rent to him. But mysteriously, one of my tenants was raped and robbed shortly thereafter. Coincidence? Maybe. But I am not taking a chance renting to a person that can cause harm to neighbors, tenants, etc..

    • good lord the jump you made from “i showed a room to someone convicted of these crimes” to “then my tenant was the victim of a different crime,” and the idea that this was potentially done by the same person, is ludicrous speculation based more upon your fears and limited historical knowledge than evidence and relevant observation. i hope your current tenants aren’t subject to this same level of unfounded speculation.

  • I absolutely look at criminal records in considering tenants. And if you’ve got one, you will most likely not get the apartment. If I know that you are a rapist or a murderer or someone who has assaulted someone in the past and I rent to you anyway, and then you hurt one of the other tenants, that tenant can, should, and would sue me for negligence.
    .
    Do you have a drug history? Even something “small” like pot possession or use? You’re not getting the apartment. Pot smoke will *never* come out of drywall, and unless your conviction is 20+ years old, I’m going to assume you still smoke, and that the smoke will damage my investment. Drug users have a harder time holding jobs (since many randomly drug test and will fire you if you fail) – that threatens my source of income from the apartment.
    .
    I can’t really think of a criminal offense I would overlook in an application. Perhaps something minor that could be considered a “youthful indiscretion” from a few decades ago. But mine is a high bar to clear to begin with – your (individual, not combined) income must be enough so that the rent is no more than 30% of gross, you need to show me that you have some cash assets and aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, you need strong references from your previous landlord, and good credit. I’m not some giant landlord with a hundred properties, so I have to be more careful with who I rent to. Also, given DC’s notoriously anti-landlord rental laws, once you’re in, it will be virtually impossible for me to get rid of you if a problem arises later on. An ounce of prevention is worth a truckload of cure in DC.

    • You realize someone might smoke tobacco just as easily as pot, and would have no criminal record whatsoever to track that habit, right? And that almost everyone commits some kind of minor crime on a relatively frequent basis? Or have you never done anything illegal in your life? This sounds like an insanely high bar, and people like you are the reason we need laws prohibiting such discrimination.

      The other responses here made sense, but they were about refusing to rent to people with histories that are more than tangentially connected to their prospective tenancy.

      • Well, for starters, less than 30% of the US population has ever even been arrested. Less than half of those have ever been convicted, or plead guilty. So, knocking 15% of the potential tenants off my list isn’t hurting my ability to rent a unit. And you’re right – most people break the law frequently. I certainly have let a meter expire or rolled through a stop sign before. However, there is a reason why minor violations like that result in citations and not an arrest with a trial. And no criminal background check will show parking or speeding tickets, because for the most part nobody cares about them, including me.
        .
        And yes, I realize people can smoke cigarettes without having anything show up on a background check, but it’s pretty easy to smell a smoker. I don’t rent to them either. I used to be one, and I know that smell will never go away.
        .
        And it isn’t “discrimination” – it’s having good sense. If your criminal record was intended to be irrelevant after you left prison, then we wouldn’t keep records – we would just expunge the whole thing after you left jail. But we do keep them, and we make them easily available, because they ARE relevant.
        .
        As I mentioned earlier, once you have a tenant it’s easier to catch a flying unicorn than it is to get rid of them. That’s why I screen potential tenants so rigorously. And I still have zero problems renting a vacant unit to a highly qualified tenant on the first weekend I show it, despite my very high standards. The city has chosen to make it almost impossible to undo a mistake if you rent to someone you later realize you shouldn’t have – so it is natural for landlords to now do absolutely anything in our power to avoid making that mistake in the first place. If the city actually wants to make it easier for convicted criminals to find housing, make it easier for landlords to evict them if they go back to committing crime, and more landlords will be open to renting to them.

        • LOL what will you do now that DC decriminalized marijuana? And even before that marijuana was also a small offense (misdemeanor), similar in penalty to your rolling through a stop sign.

    • pot smoke doesn’t stick like tobacco. trust.

    • “Pot smoke will *never* come out of drywall”

      Wrong.

      “and unless your conviction is 20+ years old, I’m going to assume you still smoke, and that the smoke will damage my investment.”

      Wrong

      “Drug users have a harder time holding jobs (since many randomly drug test and will fire you if you fail)”

      Wrong

      Wow, you are so incredibly ignorant. But par for the course among most metro DC residents.

  • as a former landlord I would still want this information. Mainly because DC makes it next to impossible to get rid of a bad tenant so landlords have to do everything possible to weed out potential problems before they move in.

    • This. You either make the entry process less restrictive for tenants (restricting the information landlords can use to screen) and lower the barrier to exit (make it easier for landlords to evict problem tenants) or vice versa. Not giving landlords the ability to effectively screen and then also making it difficult to remove problem renters is a recipe to jack up the rental market.

  • Given the way plea deals are structured and the number of people who take them to avoid more significant punishment regardless of their actual guilt, I don’t take a criminal record on face as much of an indicator of anything.

  • “more stripping away of our rights under the tyrannical hand of the worst president in modern history.”

    Bush has been out of office for some years now. Although his actions were egregious, I don’t think they are relevant to this matter, since the federal government is in no way involved.

    • It’s a bit more nuanced than that. You are no longer allowed to have a policy of outright rejection to all applicants because they have a conviction, but you are still allowed to ask about it, do a background check, and consider what you find as a factor, all the way up to declining to rent to them because of it. You also are not allowed to tell a black person they were denied the apartment because they have a criminal record, but to then rent to a white person with a similar record. But was already the case for some time, and extends to other areas as well, like income and credit score. You can’t tell a minority they don’t make enough money and then rent to a white person who makes the same amount either.

  • The fact is that if you have a nice apt. with a decent rent in a desirable location you will have over 50 applicants so you can always pick between Mary Poppins and Mother Theresa. It’s a harder call for marginal neighborhoods, and yes, DC laws can make hell for a landlord.

    I hate to see affordable apts. – where “odd job” guys used to live – vanish in my neighborhood, but on the other hand, I rented out apts. for over 10 years to people with Section 8 & other various rental assistance programs and lost a shiteload of money, energy and good will. Unfortunately, it was definitely more negative than positive.

  • Perceived ‘disparities’ didn’t make them commit the crime, they did that on their own.
    Don’t be dumb. Keep the question.

  • I get the ban the box movement. I support it for employment. But, applying it to rentals isn’t the same thing. If you are hiring someone for a job it doesn’t matter if they were previously a low level drug dealer. They are closely supervised at work and if they don’t work out, you can always fire them. But, you can’t closely monitor who is renting an apartment and you can’t easily remove them.

    I 100% endore outlawing direct discrimination via selective enforcement, but am more apprehensive about overly broad “disperate impact” claims. Particularly when applying it to a small landlord who dosen’t have time and resources to do the same level of due dillagence/legal research.

    Personally, I would use a more nuanced approach. I might rent it out to someone with a prior non-violent conviction if it were a long time ago and they have since had a clean record, credit history and rental history. But, a nuanced approach is potentially just as subjective and opens you up to selective enforcement. I would probably downplay white collar crimes over streetcrimes. A simple we don’t rent to people with criminal records might be simpler and safer for many landlords.

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