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"Impact of Tenant Screening Policies on People of Color in King County, Washington"

September/October 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

Columbia Legal Services (CLS) received a PRRAC grant to address whether aspects of tenant screening are a form of unlawful discrimination under fair housing laws and to devise the best research protocols to obtain statistical evidence about these issues.

A research student, Zachary Howard, reviewed data and literature currently available on tenant screening practices that use evictions and criminal records history to determine tenant suitability. The researcher then developed several possible protocols for identifying, gathering and analyzing these data and developed cost estimates for implementing the protocols. The PRRAC grant did not fund implementation, but CLS worked with University of Washington graduate students to conduct a study based on these protocols.

Another researcher, Dylan Orr, analyzed relevant disparate impact theories under Washington State and federal fair housing law. CLS and the researcher created a 40-page practice guide based on this research. Hopefully, this guide will encourage advocates across the country to utilize disparate impact or segregative effect claims under the fair housing law to stop landlords and tenant screeners from using criminal or evictions records as a reason to deny housing to tenants in protected classes.

Possible Protocols

Design and conduct a survey of unlawful detainer defendants in King County.
Such a survey would seek out demographic information. Staff should administer the survey to a random sample of defendants during or following their unlawful detainer proceedings. CLS and its partners can organize these data and compare them to current Census data to determine whether certain protected classes are appearing as defendants at a more significant rate than accounted for in the population. This methodology will provide a piece of the puzzle of who faces unlawful detainer actions in King County, but will not account for those who fail to attend their hearings.

Create a database containing demographic information of tenants facing eviction.
Legal Services programs and non-profits could coordinate to create a database containing information from all providers, but would need to protect tenantsí privacy. A centralized database has the potential to be an important first step towards more robust data-gathering efforts.

Advocate for the inclusion of eviction-related information on state and federal housing surveys.
State and federal agencies conduct surveys on housing and reasons for housing turnover, but not to a degree that determines whether evictions disproportionately affect racial minorities. CLS can partner with other local housing and Legal Services providers to pool resources and lobby state and federal agencies to gather more comprehensive data on eviction and its effect on renters. CLS should make contact with the American Housing Survey and other demographers at HUD to ensure the creation of a stronger data source on evictions.

Undertake a spatial analysis of the demographic characteristics of the neighborhoods where residential evictions take place in King County.
It is unknown whether the results of this analysis would provide statistically significant information regarding the impact of evictions on different racial groups. However, by combining the results of this methodology with the results of the above unlawful detainer survey, there would be a better understanding of the demographics of unlawful detainer defendants in King County.

Track Washington State demographic data on offenders by race and ethnic status.
The research suggests that tenant screening that includes criminal background checks disproportionately affects people of African-American heritage. However, to get a broader picture of this impact, a fuller source of data than that which is currently available should be identified. The recommendation is to seek out data sources from local and county law enforcement agencies, while monitoring the state-level data sources on corrections admissions.


Graduate students at the University of Washington, Bothell used two of the suggested methodologies to conduct a research study. The studentsí data set included 2,835 residential unlawful detainer (UD) filings in King County, Washington during 2008. In addition, monthly rental values were collected in 28 cities within King Countyís boundaries. Across 72 zip codes in King County a significant correlation exists between a tenantís race, as identified in the 2000 U.S. Census, and UD filing rates. Statistical analysis demonstrated a moderate positive correlation between percentage of African-American tenants and UD rates and a moderate negative correlation between percentage of White tenants and UD rates. These correlations illustrate that living in a predominantly African-American zip code area in King County increases a tenantís likelihood of facing eviction, while living in a predominantly White zip code area decreases a tenantís likelihood of facing eviction. The data also showed that this is true, to a lesser extent, for other ethnic minorities, including tenants identifying as Multi-Racial, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

For further information, contact Merf Ehman at Columbia Legal Services,

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