NJ Advocates Fight For Tenant Screening Reform

Aug 14, 2017

Yanira Cortes tells US Senator Cory Booker her story.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

If your landlord knew your apartment infested with rodents and roaches, moldy from water leaks and did little to nothing about it, would you pay your rent?  That was the question for one Newark resident when the bathroom ceiling of her apartment collapsed.

“We’re living worse than squatters.  It’s not fair to us, it’s not fair to our kids, it’s not fair to our neighbors, it’s not right.”

Because of poor living conditions, Yanira Cortes started withholding payments to her landlord.  She’s been in and out of court for several years.

“I have done it since the year 2014.  Same landlord, same place.”

Yanira can’t find another apartment because she’s on the so-called tenant blacklist.  Her documented negligence to pay her rent has other landlords turning her away.

“I’ve tried, it’s hard.  I’ve even tried to apply for market rent but they say ‘hey there’s something on your credit’.”

Paula Francese is a law professor at Seton Hall Law School.  She says tenant screening reports offer no context why somebody didn’t pay their rent.

“What we found most devastating, is the appearance on a blacklist is a silent killer in terms of affording that tenant any opportunity to secure housing, let alone subsidized housing in the future,” Francese said.

United States Senator Cory Booker has recently introduced federal legislation he says would eliminate the idea of a tenant blacklist.  Under his bill, reports will list whether tenants won cases against their respective landlords, it would cap how long tenants remain on reports to three years, and allow tenants to obtain a copy.

“This is a national issue, from Oakland to Brooklyn,” said Booker.  “Mistakes are made.  We know even from background checks from the FBI that a majority of those contain factually incorrect or incomplete information.  We should have a process to amend that list to have transparency to seeing it.”

Bill Good with the Greater Newark Tenants Coalition says residents in poor living situations will remain in fear as long as screening practices don’t change.

“A lot of people don’t get involved because they think it’s going to have a negative impact on them.  They think that they can get evicted.  Often times tenants don’t know their rights.  They have the opportunity to get organized and get involved.  Often times these rights are not shared with them by the owners and management of these buildings.”

Sanitary Rental Housing reform is gaining bipartisan steam on a New Jersey state government level.   Republican Senator Jennifer Beck and Democrat Ron Rice recently had their bill advanced by a Senate Community & Urban Affairs Committee.