How to Screen a Section 8 Tenant
1. Know Local Housing Laws
2. Avoid Other Discriminatory Conduct
3. Apply the Same Screening Standard Uniformly
4. Don’t Make the Process Rigorous
5. Be Selective with Section 8 Applicants
6. Be Consistent in Communication
How to screen a Section 8 Tenant is a concern that many landlords have.
Everyone has heard the nightmares about what happens when a tenant is not screened property, and have also heard some of the horror stories about Section 8 tenant s who aren’t screened properly.
As a property investor, you should be aware that the process as to how to screen a Section 8 tenant is not as difficult as it may seem.
In fact, it follows the same process that you would use to vet any other potential tenant. You can end up with a good or bad Section 8 tenant, just as you can with a non-Section 8 tenant.
You shouldn’t consider the process you use to screen a Section 8 tenant any differently, because you could run afoul of housing laws, and end up with a costly discrimination claim.
Let’s get started.
What is a Section 8 Tenant for Screening Purposes?
Section 8 is technically known as the “Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program.” The Section 8 program is designed to assist tenants with very low or no income help find housing.
There are a broad range of individuals who may qualify for Section 8, including the elderly, individuals with disabilities, or people who have a low income for a diverse number of reasons.
As a benefit to you as a landlord, as well as the tenant, up to 75% of the rental amount is covered by the government.
It is important to note, however, that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) doesn’t set forth the requirement that the landlord must allow Section 8 tenants.
HOWEVER. . . . .
And this is a big however (that’s why we put it in all caps)
There are two important things your should consider: local housing laws, and other discriminatory conduct
Local Housing Laws as They Apply to Screening a Section 8 Tenant
Despite the fact the FHA or other federal law does not mandate you accept a Section 8 tenant for screening and ultimately placement, some states and localities have implemented laws related to how to screen a Section 8 tenant.
In Chicago, for example, it is illegal for a landlord to discriminate against a Section 8 tenant in the screening and renting process.
Washington State has also implemented laws which provide restrictions on how you can screen a Section 8 tenant. In Washington, it is illegal to deny or refuse applications from tenants who use public assistance, this includes when you screen a Section 8 tenant.
As far as local rules are concerned, your best bet is to check with your local laws, or give a call to the local housing division that handles Section 8 tenants.
Other of Discriminatory Conduct Related to How You Screen a Section 8 Tenant
While this list is not exhaustive, below are some of the ways your conduct can be viewed as discriminatory, and thus be in violation of the law.
Choosing A Section 8 Tenant Over Another Based on Discriminatory Conduct Towards a Protected Class
You shouldn’t, under any circumstance, decide to choose one Section 8 tenant, or any tenant for that manner, because of an enumerated discriminatory basis.
What this means, for example, is that you should not select a Section 8 tenant because they are white, over a Section 8 tenant who is a minority.
The same applies to Section 8 tenants who are members of other protected classes including: color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status.
Screening and Steering Section 8 Applicants to Other Locations
Another form of discriminatory conduct with Section 8 tenants involves steering.
Steering is when you attempt to encourage a tenant that the area “might not be a good fit for them,” and that another area may be better.
This type of conduct is another lawsuit waiting to happen, and a costly lawsuit at that.
Protected class discriminatory conduct in housing is always going to land you in hot water.
How to Screen Section 8 Tenants The Right Way
There are a couple of methods you can implement to avoid a discrimination claim, whether your state or locality has implemented a law concerning screening and approving Section 8 tenants or not.
Method 1: Apply the Same Standard For All Applicants
The best practice, and what we follow at Linchpin Property Management, is to screen all tenants the same way.
Not only will this protect you as you screen Section 8 tenants, it will protect you against any claims of discrimination.
This assumes that your screening criteria isn’t in and of itself discriminatory.
Some non-discriminatory ways to screen (and some may be jurisdiction specific) include:
1. Negative Credit History;
2. Criminal Background;
3. Debt to income Ratio;
4. History of Evictions; and
5. Negative References or Previous Landlord Reports.
It is also important to note that you are permitted to contact the Section 8 tenant’s case manager during the screening process.
Contacting the case manager during the Section 8 tenant screening process is not discriminatory conduct, as they are part of the application and selection process anyway.
Method 2: Don’t Make the Section 8 Screening Process More Rigorous
If you attempt to make how you screen Section 8 tenants more rigorous than you do any other tenant, you are setting yourself up for a discrimination lawsuit.
Not only for a Section 8 violation, but because you are now applying a different standard to a tenant screening than you would another tenant.
Conducting Home Visits As Part of the Section 8 Screening Process
One “popular” way to do a screening of a Section 8 tenant is for the landlord to do a home visit of the Section 8 tenant.
This is an EXTREMELY bad idea.
Not only does it apply to a different standard to the Section 8 tenant, it applies a different standard to any other tenants as a whole.
It gets even messier if the potential Section 8 tenant is one of the protected classes enumerated in Key Point 1 above.
Increasing Frequency of Inspections on Section 8 Tenants
The other thing landlord do is conduct more inspections on Section 8 tenants than they do on other tenants.
Again, this is an extremely bad idea, and opens you up to a lawsuit.
If you are inspecting properties more frequently, it needs to be across the board. Singling out Section 8 tenants, whether your state law allows you to not take vouchers or not, is going to be unlawful.
Again, keep your policy consistent with all tenant’s, and put it in writing well in advance of you taking on your first tenant, Section 8 or otherwise.
Interviewing Previous Neighbors of Section 8 Tenants As Part of the Screening Process
Another method is going to the Section 8 tenant’s previous neighbors, and speaking with them.
Don’t do this.
You may be tired of hearing this, but the key point here is to, and we can’t say this enough, apply the same standard across the board.
If you do something for one, you do it for all. NO EXCEPTIONS.
Method 3: You Are Not Legally Required to Take Every Section 8 Tenant That you Screen
Just because your state may have laws that prohibit discriminating against Section 8 tenants in your screening process, this doesn’t mean you have to take every Section 8 tenant.
What this means is that you can apply your non-discriminatory method of screening tenants, and if a Section 8 tenant fits your criteria, you can pick that tenant.
This allows you to be selective with your tenants, with the rejection of one applicant over another being for a valid reason.
Method 4: Be Consistent With How You Communicate your Screening Criteria for Section 8 Tenants
You have your policies in place, you understand the law, but you must educated all of your staff on the policy.
Many discrimination lawsuits involving Section 8 screening, FHA violations, and ADA violations, start before you ever have a conversation with a perspective tenant.
You must train all personnel in your office to be consistent with the screening of all tenants. The same applies if you are an individual landlord. Anyone who responds to leasing inquires should be trained.
If you receive a call or email asking if you take Section 8 tenants for a rental property, the response should be something along the lines of:
We screen all applicant’s for our available properties in the same manner. It doesn’t matter if you are receiving any government assistance, whatsoever. You are free to apply. Here is our website. If you have any questions about the application, please let me know.
Key Takeaways on Screening a Section 8 Tenant
The key point is to establish a process as to how you screen your Section 8 tenants with the same methodology that you would screen other tenants.
Treat every applicant the same way, and have a written screening process that you can refer back to, and you won’t end up in hot water.
We Are Here to Help With Your Section 8 Questions
At Linchpin Property Management, we are fortunate to be the only property management company in Fayetteville with a retired military lawyer, and Licensed North Carolina attorney, as the CEO.
What this means is that we can help you navigate the Section 8 screening process, so that you can protect your asset.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us below.
The Team at Linchpin Property Management
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The Pain in The Butt Disclaimer:
As always, information on this website is not intended to constitute legal advice, or the retention of our property management services, and is for general information purposes only.
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