Editor’s note: The Renters Access Act passed in Philadelphia in late June 2021.
For most people, the start of a new job, especially one with a higher income, means the start of new opportunities. When Jessica (a pseudonym to protect her identity) got hired with the post office earlier this year, she was excited for a fresh start, which included finally being able to move out of public housing and getting to rent an apartment in a better neighborhood - one with nice amenities and nearby green space that was closer to her job. As she began applying for units, however, she soon began to realize that the fresh start would be more difficult to achieve than she thought. Each of the three places she initially applied to all gave her the same response — that she had been rejected due to her eviction record, even though she has never been evicted.
After receiving the written rejection, Jessica was able to obtain a copy of her tenant screening report. She was shocked to find five eviction records on the report, spread over a 6-year period. Though she had never been evicted, she had been late on her rent a few times, in amounts ranging from less than $100 to just over $300. Those late payments — sometimes by just a few days — triggered eviction filings. All were later withdrawn or marked “satisfied” by the housing provider’s attorneys and Jessica never entered the eviction courtroom once — yet they remained on her record. Although Jessica knew of the existence of these eviction filings, she had no idea that they would continue to show up and haunt her, particularly when her Housing Authority property manager reassured her again and again that the late payment would not result in a court filing or a negative stain on her record.
Jessica’s story underscores the ways that renters are punished by eviction filings. 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 tenants’ favor. In addition, these screening companies’ scoring algorithms are opaque, leaving tenants with little recourse to contest a bad score. And 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.
It has been shown around the country that eviction records have a disparate impact on Black women and their families, causing dangerous cycles of generational poverty and instability. This grim reality is reflected in Philadelphia, where 71% of annual evictions are filed in communities of color. The pandemic has significantly exacerbated difficulties facing Black communities and other communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people. These communities are most likely to have lost income during the pandemic, putting them at greater risk of eviction filings, and therefore putting them at risk of homelessness and instability beyond the pandemic.
And yet, eviction records are often just a brief snapshot of a person going through a difficult period. Tenants can recover from an illness, job loss, family death, or domestic violence issues, 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. Renters like Jessica are kept 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.
Currently, policymakers around the country are exploring options that will work to dismantle the significant barriers that eviction records place on accessing stable and healthy housing by regulating access to such records and how they can be used in rental decisions. In Philadelphia, the Renters’ Access Act , introduced by Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks (Bills No. 21032900 and 21033000), is a major solution for this issue. The legislation creates a tenant screening policy that will provide guidelines around how eviction records can be used when landlords review tenant applications.
The Renters’ Access Act would achieve a number of important goals. First, it would create three new requirements: Landlords must provide uniform written rental screening criteria to each tenant applying to their unit, and if a tenant is rejected, they must provide a written statement why, including any third-party information they used to make their decision. In addition, landlords would be required to go through an individualized review and give weight to other circumstances besides just an eviction record. It would also prohibit policies that reject applicants solely based upon their credit score or eviction record.
The Renters’ Access Act also prohibits landlords from considering certain criteria, including failure to pay rent or utility bills during COVID-19 emergency periods, and certain kinds of eviction records. The act would also give applicants the right to dispute inaccurate information or seek reconsideration in the case of mitigating circumstances, while requiring landlords to give time for consideration of new information.
Finally, this legislation increases transparency around what criteria is being used to evaluate applicants. Clarity in the application process helps both landlords and renters fill units. Rental application fees can pose a significant barrier to low-income tenants seeking housing. By requiring landlords to provide written screening criteria, applicants have a better sense of if they should spend the money to apply.
On June 8, the Philadelphia City Council Law and Government committee will hold a hearing on the Renters’ Access Act. Tenants impacted by eviction records are mobilizing to testify at the hearing and share their stories on why the Renters’ Access Act is necessary for more equitable housing access in our City — especially where eviction record expungement and sealing laws don’t yet exist. The Renters’ Access Act will work interconnectedly with other protections and programs such as right to counsel and eviction diversion — offering the opportunity to fundamentally change the culture of evictions and housing access in Philadelphia, and to set a model and standard for other cities to follow.
Update: We’ve changed our use of the term “landlord” to “housing provider” to clarify that Jessica is a public housing tenant.
Rasheedah Phillips is managing attorney for housing policy at at Community Legal Services. Ms. Phillips is an expert in subsidized housing law and has successfully advocated for changes in housing policy affecting the entire City of Philadelphia and beyond.