Philadelphia City Council approved legislation Thursday to restrict how landlords screen potential tenants and to inform renters about the criteria landlords use.
The city will prohibit landlords from adopting policies that deny potential tenants solely because of low credit scores and past evictions or eviction filings. Before accepting applications for rental housing, landlords will have to provide written tenant screening criteria that they use to evaluate all potential renters. They will have to tell rejected tenants in writing why they were denied, and tenants will have the chance to dispute incorrect information, explain mitigating factors, and show how their circumstances have changed.
Before applying for housing, potential tenants will see how criteria such as criminal and rental history will be used, so they know what they may have to explain or know not to waste their money on an application fee.
Landlords will need to individually assess applicants, instead of relying solely on credit or third-party tenant screening reports, to determine whether to rent to a prospective tenant. Landlords will not be able to reject applicants because of credit or other reports showing they didn’t pay rent or utility bills during the pandemic; evictions for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic; evictions filed four or more years before the rental application; eviction cases a landlord did not win; and cases that have been sealed or resolved.
Mayor Jim Kenney is expected to sign the bills, which will take effect 90 days later.
Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who introduced the legislation called the Renters’ Access Act, said during a hearing this month that the new rules will make landlords more likely to consider the full financial picture of potential tenants, “rather than just relying on pieces of information that disproportionately bar people of color, especially Black women, from stable rental housing and force them into unregulated, dangerous, illegal living arrangements.”
The legislation, Brooks said Thursday, will “increase transparency and accountability and decrease discrimination.”
During the pandemic, 78% of eviction filings occurred in communities of color, according to city officials.
According to Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, more than one in four eviction filings in Philadelphia from 2015 to 2020 — roughly 30,000 eviction filings — were either withdrawn or the tenant won the case. But the mere filing in court for an eviction by a landlord stains a tenant’s record and makes finding future housing more difficult.
Michael Taub, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Homeless Advocacy Project, which provides legal services to people experiencing homelessness, testified in favor of the legislation at Thursday’s Council meeting, saying the bills will help people move out of shelters and into their own homes. He mentioned a veteran who has a housing voucher and money for a security deposit and would be a great tenant but can’t find a unit.
“Just last week he found a place he loved, and the landlord said no after looking at his eviction record,” Taub said. “There was only one filing against him, a default judgment entered while he was at the VA hospital in Coatesville” and did not appear for his court hearing.
Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, told Council members at the June 8 hearing that the use of eviction records to screen tenants is a nationwide problem. He said Philadelphia’s legislation “is really distinguishing itself and taking a leadership role.”
“And it’s recognizing that there’s more to the problem than just improperly filed cases,” he said. “That it shouldn’t be a long-term bar to decent housing to have an eviction record even if you really didn’t pay the rent in the past if you can show that you’ll be a good tenant in the future.”
Councilmembers Helen Gym, Bobby Henon, Jamie Gauthier, and Isaiah Thomas cosponsored the Renters’ Access Act.
Most provisions of the legislation don’t apply to federally subsidized housing because the regulations could jeopardize federal funding and the amount of affordable housing in the city. Providers of this type of housing still will need to provide potential tenants with written uniform screening criteria.
If rejected renters successfully show they can be good tenants, but the unit they wanted is no longer available, landlords who own five or more housing units in the city must offer the next available comparable unit.
Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney for housing policy at Community Legal Services, said at the Council hearing that the legislation “offers an opportunity to change the course of equitable housing access in our city in a way that creates a net benefit allowing us to make major strides in curbing discrimination against vulnerable tenants, alleviating housing barriers that disproportionately harm voucher holders, people of color, women-headed households, older residents, and people with disabilities.”
Andre Del Valle, director of government affairs at the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, told Council members the organization appreciates the spirit of the bills and the provision that the city revisit the ordinance in 18 months to make sure it is not causing unintended consequences for the rental market and the availability of rental housing.
“Apartment owners and managers need the ability to fully evaluate an applicant because they depend on responsible renters to be able to properly manage their businesses,” he said at this month’s Council hearing.