A Screen is Only as Strong as its Largest Hole.

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There's been a lot of talk about background checks lately. The topic tends to come up every time people are scared by recent violence and want some way of ensuring that Bad Things continue to happen only in far away places.

Over the course of my real estate career I had to run lots and lots of background checks on renters. I saw the background check output from 20-30 different tenant screening companies. They ranged in thoroughness from just a yes-no decision to 60 pages of detailed, computerized data. Only a handful of them provided a real, accurate picture of the tenants. The process that RentConfident uses to check on landlords in Chicago was designed in part as a response to the problems I found with modern tenant screening methods.

Civilian rental screening is far removed from the intensive processes used to monitor emigrés who are following legal entry channels. However, there are many others who get into the country through other means, both legal (student and worker visas) and not. It has been repeatedly proven by comparing prison populations and census data that foreign born residents of the US commit far fewer serious crimes than their US-born counterparts. Given the uneven treatment of immigrants and the high number of domestic criminals, those who are concerned about screening would do well to focus not only on the treatment of newcomers but also the vetting processes that are used to restrict who has access to our homes and offices on a daily basis.

Fortunately, landlords have options to screen their renters. Many landlords will even use their "thorough screening" of renters as an advertising hook, implying that their buildings are safer than the rest. This, my friends, is a load of baloney.

  • RAP sheets (records of arrest and prosecution) are the most accurate criminal profiles available. Most landlords cannot and do not pull RAP sheets. The state police will send them out, as will the city police, but there is a time lag, a cost, and the accuracy is questionable without fingerprints. The FBI will only send national rap sheets to the cops, the courts, and certain government agencies. CHA can pull RAP sheets on section 8 renters, and they do. The rest of us have to jump over a ton of hoops to get the same info.
  • It takes at least 24 hours for the state of Illinois to turn around a state-wide criminal check, and only then if you know the right channels to use. If a landlord or employer gives you an instantaneous approval, chances are they didn't check your record and they haven't checked anyone else's either.
  • In the absence of accurate RAP sheets, landlords must rely on court records. The Cook County Clerk makes court records available online for some cases, but criminal records are not included. You have to go to the courthouse proper to view records of criminal proceedings. Not many landlords are going to do that.
  • I've worked with a lot of landlords, real estate brokerages and property managers that use screening software to run tenant background checks. I have never seen software that didn't require a renter's social security number as part of the identification process. The entire process breaks down completely when an international applicant without an SSN wants to rent housing. Landlords are instead forced to rely on the visa process and hope that someone else in the chain of authority has already ensured that international applicants are clean.
  • You cannot pull national court records in one query. You have to go state by state. Most of the software companies used by landlords charge extra for every state you check. Your average property management employee will always check Illinois by default as the first state, even if the renter is moving from elsewhere. Your average property management company will only pay for one state worth of data, if any.
  • Most of the software companies also charge extra to verify employment and prior rental history. This means that in most cases, this vital part of screening does not occur.
  • No matter how good a computer system is, every background check must at some point be initiated by a human and interpreted by a human. This usually requires one human who can read and enter handwriting without error and always requires a human who can understand the computer's output.
  • Not every person views criminal history in the same way. One landlord might consider it a reason to decline an applicant, while another could see it as a reason to charge them more rent.
  • In 2013 about 3% of Illinois juveniles (ages 10-17) were arrested. However, in my entire history of rental work I never saw a single landlord request a background check on a minor.
  • There is virtually no way to selectively apply this sort of screening to suspicious applicants only without risking accusations of profiling and fair housing violations. It would have to be performed on every renter living in a landlord's properties, or not at all.
  • Landlords who thoroughly screen their residential tenants may not extend the same screening policies to their commercial tenants, and have no control over the screening of employees hired by those commercial tenants. If you're living in a mixed use building as many Chicago renters do, all bets are off.

Real and accurate criminal background checking for renters is not happening in Chicago. It can't happen without creating big privacy concerns for your average law-abiding citizen. It cannot be performed in the proper time frame to keep up with the pace of the market, nor can it truly be performed in a cost effective way. Given the state of the civilian tenant screening industry, one has to wonder if the premise of tenant criminal checks is just discriminatory lip service, especially given that no criminal screening of buyers is required at all.

Published by

Kay Cleaves