The Application Process
Questions a Landlord May Ask a Prospective Tenant
Housing providers may inquire into an applicant’s ability to meet tenancy requirements. This means a landlord may ask whether you have sufficient income to be able to pay the rent, whether you are willing to comply with the building’s rules, and other questions relating directly to tenancy. A housing provider may also adopt and apply uniform, objective, and nondiscriminatory criteria designed to evaluate a prospective tenant’s credit worthiness, such as imposing credit or criminal background checks. Any questions asked by a housing provider must be asked to all applicants on an equal opportunity basis, without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, gender, familial status, or disability. Please refer to the section on Fair Housing Law for an explanation of unlawful housing discrimination. You cannot be rejected for an apartment because of your race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, because you have children, or because you are over the age of 40.
Financial Qualification Standards
Each landlord may have his or her own financial qualification standards. A formula used by many landlords to qualify a renter is:
Monthly net income x 40% = what a renter can afford to pay for rent and utilities combined
For example: $1,500/month x .40 = $600 per month for rent and utilities combined.
Other landlords may require that households make three times or four times the monthly rent in order to qualify for an apartment. If a prospective renter applies for an apartment and does not meet the income qualifications, this person is more likely to have difficulty paying the rent because they need to also be able to cover other expenses such as car payments, child care, medical expenses, food, clothing, etc.
The Rental Application
The property manager or landlord may ask a prospective renter to fill out a rental application. This application may request:
- Credit references and other credit
- A list of past landlords including
telephone numbers and addresses
- An employment history, including salary information
- An application fee that may be non-refundable
- First month rent, plus a security deposit
Prospective tenants should always read the application carefully so that you are aware of the possible consequences should you decide not to take the rental unit.
If the landlord requires a security deposit at the time of application, ask if the deposit is non-refundable. Be sure to get a receipt for all monies paid.
Ask to read the proposed lease before signing the rental application since you may be binding yourself to the lease as it is without negotiation of its terms.
Rejection of an Applicant
There is a variety of lawful reasons that a landlord may deny a prospective rental applicant. In addition to not meeting the financial qualification standards, poor credit scores, bad landlord references, and/ or prior judgments entered against you by a Court could all lead to rejection of your application. If a tenant or prospective applicant refuses to or is unable to comply with the rules that apply to all tenants, or if the individual would pose a direct physical threat to the health or safety of others, then the housing provider can reject that applicant.
Can a landlord refuse to rent to someone with a criminal background?
Yes—but it depends on the circumstances. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has issued guidance stating that because of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, blanket bans (or refusing to rent to anyone with any type of criminal history, regardless of circumstances) would most likely have a greater impact on Black or Latino applicants, and as such, could violate the Fair Housing Act.
HUD’s guidance states that housing providers need to consider the nature and severity of a crime and the amount of time that has passed to determine if the person would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of other residents. The guidance issued by HUD states that a mere arrest does not indicate guilt and a person should not be denied housing based on an arrest without a conviction. Furthermore, housing providers must apply criteria equally to all applicants and tenants, regardless of protected class. Using criminal background as a pretext for discrimination based on a protected class is illegal.
There is an exception to the HUD guidance on criminal backgrounds. If a person possesses a conviction for the manufacture and/or distribution of illegal controlled substances, they can legally be denied housing and the landlord is not in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Note: this exception does not include either arrests for drug charges that do not lead to conviction or convictions for possession only.
What If a Landlord Refuses To Accept a Housing Voucher or Social Security or Disability Income?
In Pennsylvania, source of income is not a protected class, meaning that a landlord can refuse to rent to individuals who hold a Housing Choice Voucher from the Housing Authority. Various localities within Pennsylvania have added source of income as a protected class. Contact your local government or municipality to find out if source of income is a protected class in your area and what recourse your community offers if you have been denied housing based on your source of income.
Social Security or Social Security Disability Income is verifiable income which is directly related to being a member of a protected class (age over 40 and/or disability). Refusal to approve an application because a prospective tenant is not employed could be unlawful discrimination if the prospective tenant has other verifiable income such as social security or disability that would financially qualify them to rent.