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BOOKER/RICE: Bills would help end ‘renter hell’

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U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and state Sen. Ron Rice Guest Columnists Asbury Park Press

When Newark resident Yanira Cortes’ landlord refused to address the crumbling ceiling, rats, roaches and mold plaguing her family in their rental home, she exerted her legal right to withhold her rent. Her landlord consequently brought multiple eviction proceedings against her.

Even though the court continually found in her favor, Yanira’s name was made available to nationwide tenant screening agencies that landlords use to evaluate potential tenants. As a result, Yanira has been effectively blacklisted from housing simply because she fought for her family. By trying to hold her landlord accountable, she unknowingly acquired an irremovable black mark on her record. She has been branded a “bad” tenant — no other landlord will rent to her, and she can’t find an affordable, safe place for her family to live.

Unfortunately, tenants in New Jersey and all around the country are finding themselves in this situation after appearing in any tenant-landlord court proceeding — regardless of the outcome or whether they were the ones to bring a case against their landlord.

This injustice is due to tenant rating agencies curating court-filing data to create reports that are used by landlords to screen, and sometimes discriminate against, prospective tenants. If a tenant has ever had a past legal dispute with a landlord, that information is reflected in their report. The agencies that create these reports, however, are largely unregulated and lack meaningful restrictions to ensure fairness, and as a result the information they provide to landlords is too often severely limited, without providing any context or even whether the court found in favor of the tenant.

Landlords in New Jersey and around the nation often use these imperfect reports as a basis to reject prospective tenants. As a result, tenants are being negatively impacted merely for filing a court proceeding or having one filed against them.

 

We have heard from our constituents and stakeholders that in some instances, landlords can even use these reports as an excuse to discriminate against potential tenants that they deem undesirable and we have been highly disturbed by the scope of this issue as highlighted by recent investigation reporting in the Asbury Park Press ("Renter Hell").

New Jersey’s severe rental housing shortage already makes it difficult to secure quality housing, and a negative tenant screening report can make it virtually impossible. We have seen firsthand what these unregulated reports can do to families: a number of New Jerseyans have come to our offices for help because they have become homeless and are living in shelters with their children as a direct result of a poor tenant screening report.

The more than 1.1 million people in New Jersey who rent their homes and millions of renters across the country deserve safe and adequate housing, and no renter should be afraid to protest uninhabitable living conditions or penalized for asserting his or her legal rights.

It is unconscionably cruel that people like Yanira are being denied housing opportunities or faced with homelessness just for protesting their appalling living conditions. Our court system is supposed to provide tenants with recourse against unscrupulous landlords, not permanently impede their ability to obtain quality affordable housing. That’s why we have introduced legislation at the federal and state levels that takes important steps to reform unfair tenant screening practices and reporting procedures.

Our legislation aims to protect tenants like Yanira and provide landlords with the most accurate and relevant information in order to ensure a fair screening process. Our respective bills would ensure that court records remain confidential unless a landlord receives a judgment of possession in his or her favor. Tenants like Yanira who prevailed in court would not be blacklisted just for appearing in a landlord-tenant case. Tenant screening reports would also not contain any information more than three years old. Additionally, renters would have access to the information contained in their report as well as the means to amend inaccuracies.

Affordable housing is at the foundation of the American dream — every American deserves a safe and decent place to live. Renters like Yanira who are willing to stand up for their rights and stand up to slumlords deserve to be protected under the law.

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The Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey (SHA) is a statewide, nonprofit organization, founded in 1998, whose mission is to promote and maintain a strong supportive housing industry in New Jersey serving people with special needs.

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Guest Thursday, 18 January 2018

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