Options for Tenant Screening w/o an SSN

Screening without Social Security Numbers: There are Options!
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Guest Blogger:  Jo Becker
Education/Outreach Specialist
Fair Housing Council of Oregon

FHCO often receives questions from both housing consumers and housing providers about tenant screening for applicants who do not have a Social Security number (SSN).  With President Obama’s immigration action, approximately 4 million U.S. residents who are currently undocumented will have the opportunity to apply for work permits and SSNs. The campaign around Measure 88 (the “driver card” measure) also brought discussions of immigration in Oregon to the forefront last this fall.

Whatever your personal political position is on these recent events, the fact remains that many Oregon housing seekers do not have an SSN, and many will still not even when the President’s programs are activated.  The fact is that the Fair Housing Act and Oregon anti-discrimination law[1] apply to everyone present in the US, regardless of immigration status.

FHCO recognizes the importance of thorough tenant screening. Did you know that criminal history information can be acquired without an SSN and, of course, current and past landlords can provide rental history and references?  Applicants may be able to provide other information such as proof of “x” number of recent months’ paid utility bills, rent, or other regular monthly bills that can show a pattern of timely payment.

Individuals who do not qualify for an SSN may often have an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number). This number allows for reporting to the IRS and in some cases for opening other accounts. After having consulted with screening companies and the credit bureaus, it does not appear that this will allow a credit report to be pulled in the same way that an SSN does.

What we suggest when an applicant has no SSN is to say “show me what you can” rather than a flat “no.”  At that point, your screening company should be able to give you an informed estimate about how much time and money an evaluation could cost.  Costs may vary so shop your screening company.  Once you have a cost estimate, inform the consumer and, if you wish and do so consistently, you may then pass this cost on to them if they want to continue with the application.

NOTE:  This is a deviation from official FHCO opinion in the past that higher costs for manual screening without a SSN should not be passed on to the applicant. At this point there isn’t local or federal case law to provide guidance; however, we feel our current position is a reasonable balance between consumers’ rights and housing providers’ concerns.  Case law has well established that it is inappropriate and illegal for a housing provider to charge someone to have an assistance animal, or a change to a guest policy to have a caregiver visit however many days a week, etc.  With respect to screening a tenant without SSN; however, we are not talking about a disability-related modification / accommodation.

It is still our position that a refusal to review alternative documentation when a SSN is not available will have a negative and disparate impact on individuals whose national origin is not the US, thereby having a disparate impact on that protected class.  Therefore, a policy or practice of not accepting applicants because they do not have a SSN is not appropriate.  That said, we feel that passing on actual additional costs of screening in a situation like this as a legitimate business expense that could be passed on to the applicant.

It should be noted that we never recommend folks (whether they are immigrants or not) lie or use a false identification number.  If applicants provide false information, they risk denial (or eviction) on the basis of having lied on the application.

Technologies are changing, as are bank and lender policies, and it is important to be open to the opportunities that this may present for improved screening of individuals without SSNs.  A presumption that those without a social security number cannot use a bank or get certain loans or credit cards is incorrect.  There are both large national banks and smaller community credit unions that work with these individuals.  Additionally, individuals without a SSN are able to request a copy of their own credit report through Experian (one of three main credit bureaus).  Experian will attempt to use data points such as name, date of birth, current and last addresses, and any transactions with an ITIN, to provide the individual with a report.  The individual can then present this to a prospective landlord who is willing to accept a self-requested report.

Housing providers need to be careful, too, of assumptions about household make-up based on race or national origin.  If a landlord has a problem with residents who do not comply with the rental contract, they should deal with that appropriately under landlord / tenant law.  Landlords should not assume “certain kinds of people” have larger or extended families that will exceed reasonable occupancy policies, or be louder or cause greater damage to the property than other households, etc. and base their rental decisions on such assumptions.  Landlords should, instead, set reasonable occupancy standards (http://www.fhco.org/occupancy.htm) and enforce them equally across all of their units with all applicants and tenants.  Landlords should not presume “those people” (insert any protected class you wish) would necessarily behave inappropriately or violate contract terms.  Enforcement of rules should be consistent, based on the behavior the housing provider is concerned about and, when the rules are violated, the situations should be handled consistently.

We will continue to consult with other fair housing organizations and industry groups to assure we remain confident that our position on non-SSN-screening is reasonable.

If you have questions about a situation you have encountered, please consider us a resource and contact us!   Start on our website at www.FHCO.org/national_origin.htm, as well as www.FHCO.org/hs_provider_info.htm.

 

This article brought to you by the Fair Housing Council; a civil rights organization.  All rights reserved © 2015. Write jbecker@FHCO.org to reprint articles or inquire about ongoing content for your own publication.

To learn more…  Learn more about fair housing and / or sign up for our free, periodic newsletter at www.FHCO.org.

Qs about this article?  ‘Interested in articles for your company or trade association?  Contact Jo Becker at jbecker@FHCO.org or 800/424-3247 Ext. 150

Want to schedule an in-office fair housing training program or speaker for corporate or association functions?  Visit www.FHCO.org/pdfs/classlist.pdf

[1]   Federally protected classes under the Fair Housing Act include:  race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (children), and disability.  Oregon law also protects marital status, source of income, sexual orientation, and domestic violence survivors.  Additional protected classes have been added in particular geographic areas; visit FHCO.org/mission.htm and read the section entitled “View Local Protected Classes” for more information.

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