Nov 30, 2021

Helping Renters Access Housing

When an apartment becomes available in the Twin Cities, who gets to move in and who doesn’t? Rental property owners and managers use a variety of methods to screen and select their next renters in an effort to predict whether renter-applicants will pay rent on time and abide by the terms of the lease. In the screening process, landlords typically consider income level, rental history, credit history, and criminal history when approving rental housing applications, often relying on a third-party agency to compile this information for their use.

FHFund’s Opening the Door report, published earlier this year in partnership with Housing Justice Center, found that landlord use of tenant screening and selection methods varies widely, and this variation can have a significant impact on a family’s ability to access affordable rental housing. Inconsistent and strict application of tenant screening methods – without the opportunity for consideration of other factors, individual characteristics, or extenuating circumstances – often leads to unfairness and even discrimination in the housing search process. Additionally, errors – such as mistaken identity in third-party background reports – were reported by renters interviewed. As a result, many families struggle to access decent housing they can afford, often finding themselves on a path of substandard housing, instability, or homelessness.

Advancing the recommendations of the Opening the Door report, FHFund is expanding our efforts to support renters who are screened out of quality, affordable rental housing. For years, we have worked to expand access to “renter readiness” services in partnership with Build Wealth MN to help renters remove background barriers and improve their housing options. Building on this work, we recently partnered with Housing Justice Center and HousingLink to help launch and expand two exciting programs: Renters Reclaim the Record and Beyond Backgrounds.

Renters Reclaim the Record

Launched last month, the Renters Reclaim the Record program is beginning to provide direct assistance to renters who have been denied access to housing opportunities. Application denials may stem from the renter’s own credit, eviction, or criminal history, or from errors or inaccuracies in their background check. Starting with a renter hotline and referral process, Renters Reclaim the Record will help renters resolve the causes for denial and improve their access to quality housing.

The program helps households expunge criminal convictions or eviction filings from their record, as well as seek recourse for denials based on credit history when it comes in spite of the renters’ demonstrated history of paying rent on time. The program also works to correct cases of mistaken identity, credit reporting inaccuracies, and other errors in background reports. Housing Justice Center attorneys and other legal partners analyze denial letters and background reports and position the renter for success in future rental housing applications.

Through this program, Housing Justice Center is gathering data on the impact of the current tenant screening system, which will be used to further refine and advance the recommendations published in our joint Opening the Door report. Renters Reclaim the Record advances the report’s recommendation to empower tenants to present their best possible housing application. It also creates opportunities to learn more about how credit reporting intersects with tenant screening, which will help us identify needed reforms.

Beyond Backgrounds

Founded and operated by HousingLink, Beyond Backgrounds ­­provides education and long-term support to households whose criminal, rental, or credit history present ongoing barriers to accessing rental housing. The program helps renters with background barriers find housing, incentivizing landlords to participate and providing monthly check-in calls to offer support. Additionally, Beyond Backgrounds offers a risk mitigation fund for landlords and guarantees reimbursement for any damages to the home or nonpayment of rent. While Renters Reclaim the Record offers immediate assistance for renters seeking to correct or improve elements of their background report, Beyond Backgrounds provides support for renters with background barriers that require significant time to resolve and helps them find housing in the meantime by mitigating risk for property owners. Since its launch, Beyond Backgrounds has helped more than 498 renters find homes; just ten claims for landlord losses have been paid out.

With support from FHFund, Beyond Backgrounds is expanding its impact by collaborating with Build Wealth MN’s Rent Smart, Wise and Ready, an intensive coaching and education program that prepares households to succeed in private rental housing. This program helps renters identify and address criminal, rental, or credit history that creates barriers to their rental housing options and financial success. While many of these barriers can be resolved, the time required typically exceeds the renter’s immediate timeframe to find a new place to live. Recognizing the complementary nature of these programs, HousingLink and Build Wealth MN are now working together to help participants of Rent Smart, Wise and Ready to find housing through Beyond Backgrounds. FHFund believes working in partnership is critical for advancing housing solutions, and we are pleased to utilize our role as an intermediary to make this collaboration between our two close partners possible. We will continue to seek opportunities for expanding Beyond Backgrounds to serve the entire seven-county Twin Cities region and explore innovations to the tenant screening process.

Advancing Systems Change

Renters Reclaim the Record and Beyond Backgrounds will further inform the Opening the Door recommendations for improving tenant selection practices to create systemic change. These programs will also complement FHFund’s forthcoming quantitative research on predictors of success in private market rental housing. Using this research, we plan to develop a set of fair and evidence-based best practices for tenant screening and selection that accurately predict renter success and open doors to quality, affordable housing for more families.

By partnering with Housing Justice Center, HousingLink, and Build Wealth MN, we hope to improve housing options for renters who have been screened out of safe and affordable homes. We also acknowledge that even fair and accurate tenant selection methods will screen out some renters; this is why we are working to build a housing system that supports renters while they resolve background barriers and prepare to be successful in housing.

To our knowledge, this growing body of work around tenant screening is unique in the nation. With learnings from these programs and from our research, we aspire to inform and improve tenant screening systems across the country. Thank you to our partners in this work.

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