Landlords group concerned about tenant background checks

New Bedford City Hall
File photo by New Bedford Standard-Times

NEW BEDFORD — Some city landlords say the City Council’s push to require landlords to conduct criminal background checks on potential tenants could be problematic.

Lisa White, a former council candidate and current landlord in the city, said she understands that the council is trying to keep neighborhoods safe, but the additions to the problem properties ordinance they are considering could be a discriminatory and costly practice.

This article appeared in the New Bedford Standard-Times on March 3rd, 2020 – by Kieran Dunlop

Fellow landlord Melissa Chester-Letendre, who runs 70 rental units, said, “I think they have good intentions but…it’s a tricky situation because there are a lot of fair housing laws, we can get in a lot of trouble for discriminating based on certain crimes.”

Last week, the council by voice vote moved to request that their legislative counsel, David Gerwatowski, look into whether or not the city can require all landlords to conduct criminal background checks on potential tenants prior to entering into rental/lease agreements with them.

The idea first came up at a Public Safety and Neighborhoods Committee meeting last month when Chief of Police Joseph Cordeiro, Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn, and others fielded questions about how to prevent gangs like the Latin Kings from entrenching themselves in New Bedford.

Ward 2 Councilor Maria Giesta asked Cordeiro, “Do you think it could help stop the leasing or renting to some unsavory people in the city if (landlords) were forced to do a background check on somebody?”

“I think it’d be great,” Cordeiro answered, “It’s a great question for the legal department to see if that’s something that you could implement, something in the ordinance.”

White, who was speaking on behalf of the Greater New Bedford Landlords Association (GNBLA) said on Monday she doesn’t think the proposal is legal and that it could be discriminatory.

“There’s been arguments that because there’s racial profiling in law enforcement, that translates into a criminal record, and then if you require background checks your discriminating based on race,” White said.

Chester-Letendre said landlords have access to iCORI, an online database that provides Massachusetts-only criminal record information, but “there’s like a zillion warning about all the different ways you could be fined and sued for misuse of that website.”

For example, it’s illegal to discriminate against sex offenders or a person who has committed a crime related to drug addiction, Chester-Letendre said.

There’s also a fee related to doing the criminal background check, that would fall to the landlord since it’s illegal for landlords to charge application fees in Massachusetts.

“The $30 fee doesn’t bother me too much but the potential lawsuits if I were to make an error in the way I utilize the information I gain through the report scares me,” Chester-Letendre said.

White said she sees how the fees could add up for landlords, “I just posted an apartment for rent and had over 200 applicants, so if I’m to pay $30 for every applicant that’s $6,000, and that’s before a tenant even gets into my unit.”

The city’s crackdown on landlords has resulted in some of the worst landlords selling out of the business, White said, which is a good thing, “but the rest of us here that are good landlords are getting pummeled too.”

If criminal background checks of tenants are required, White said, “You’re just going to create another divide, another thing to get around.”

Andrew Barroll, treasurer of the GNBLA, raised another issue that landlords face, that wouldn’t be impacted by the criminal background checks of tenants,

“Tenants can invite inappropriate friends (criminals) to move in with them, and it isn’t easy to get them out,” Barroll said, “Logically someone not on the lease should be easy to get rid of. Not the case. You would be shocked at the amount of times there are problems with someone not on the lease.”

According to Barroll, landlords have to go to court to get the non-tenants out and a judge determines how long non-tenants were there, if the landlord knew they were there, and if they were paying rent.

“People not on the lease are given substantial rights in Housing Court,” Barroll said, who was required to give a non-tenant who assaulted another roommate and punched a police officer four months to find another place to live.

At the Public Safety and Neighborhoods Committee meeting Cordeiro recognized the challenges landlords face.

Cordeiro said you want to protect tenants from being ousted unjustly, but, “the landlords are not getting the equal opportunity when they really have a problem tenant to get them out in a timely fashion.”

“There needs to be some reform legislatively there,” Cordeiro said.

Cordeiro said landlords do have some tools to effectively screen tenants, including going to housing court and seeing if any potential tenants have been taken to housing court in the past.

“I go to the landlords associations and encourage them that prevention is always the best course of action for them,” Cordeiro said.

As for the City Council requiring landlords to obtain criminal background checks for potential tenants, Chester-Letendre, who’s been a landlord for 17 years, said, “I’m neither for it (or) against the proposal, but I feel like it will be ineffective and if passes will (be) challenged and removed quickly.”

White thinks the city and landlords should work more closely when it comes to this issue.

“The majority of the property is owned by landlords and the city sees them as an opponent,” White said,“the city is run by landlords’ dollars so we need to think of them as an asset and an opportunity for partnership.”

This article appeared in the New Bedford Standard-Times on March 3rd, 2020 – by Kieran Dunlop