Legal Vs. Illegal Tenant Rejection: What Landlords Should Know About Denying a Renter’s Application

Even in the middle of a pandemic, housing is in demand. In fact, given the fact that many U.S. renters may soon be evicted due to financial difficulties brought on by COVID-19, it could be that you’ll soon be faced with a number of new applications for any available rental properties you may have.

If the coronavirus crisis has shown us anything, it’s how important it is for us to protect ourselves. With many landlords and tenants alike facing economic hardship, it’s essential that you fill your properties with excellent tenants. But what exactly makes an “excellent tenant?” And how can you legally determine whether an applicant will be one down the line?

Tenant applications can provide a landlord with some important information when attempting to fill vacancies. But it’s possible that your application may contain some illegal questions or that your screening process may actually be discriminatory. In other cases, it could be that you aren’t actually being discerning enough with your applicants. Below, we’ll discuss both legal and illegal reasons to reject a tenant, in the hopes that you’ll be able to make sound decisions when sorting through applications.

It’s illegal to deny a tenant’s application based on…

  • Age: You cannot refuse to rent to someone simply because they’re a senior citizen or because they’re a student. Although you might be concerned about the implications of renting to these individuals, you’ll need to consider other aspects of their application instead.
  • Familial Status: Although 40% to 50% of marriages end in divorce in the U.S., you cannot reject a tenant based on whether they’re married, separated, or divorced. You also can’t reject someone based on whether or not they have children or whether or not they’re currently pregnant.
  • Race, Religion, or National Origin: You cannot refuse to rent to someone based on the color of their skin, their creed, or where they come from. Keep in mind that discrimination doesn’t have to be explicit to be illegal. If it’s discovered that you’re turning down Black applicants or you require proof of citizenship from one applicant but not all others, you’ll likely be found guilty of housing discrimination.
  • Disability or Mental Health: Although 20% of college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, you cannot deny a tenant based on their age or based on known substance abuse issues in their past. You also can’t reject a tenant’s application based on a physical disability or cognitive handicap. In addition, you’ll have to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities.
  • Gender or Sexuality: Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are not legal reasons to deny a tenant’s application. You cannot reject a tenant based on their sexuality, their sexual expression, or their gender identity without being in violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act, as well as state and local laws.

What are some legal reasons to reject a renter?

All that being said, there are some perfectly rational and legal reasons to reject a tenant’s rental application. For example, if you’ve screened a prospective tenant and have learned they have a history of bad credit or they’ve filed for bankruptcy in the past, that may be a good reason to reject them. If an applicant simply doesn’t have the income needed and doesn’t have a co-signer, that’s also a legitimate reason for rejection. In addition, poor references from former landlords or a history of evictions could also warrant a rejection of an applicant.

A prospective tenant’s criminal history might also be a legal reason to reject their application. The main considerations here are whether the tenant was convicted of a crime and the nature of said crime. If their offense could put other tenants or your property at risk, their criminal history should certainly be considered when rejecting their application. It might surprise you to learn that political affiliation or belief can actually be used as a legal reason to reject an applicant. Although you cannot deny an applicant based on being a protected class, you probably can deny them based on their affiliation with a political group or party. If an applicant is wearing a lapel pin — which is often worn on clothing to show support of an organization or cause — that stands in opposition to your own beliefs, it’s possible that you might be able to legally reject them for that. However, it’s important that this affiliation not be tied to their religion, race, sexual orientation, or another protected attribute.

Finally, you can also reject a tenant’s application if they included false information on the application or if they failed to complete their application correctly. You’re under no obligation to rent to people who smoke, either. You can also reject a tenant if they own pets, though you’ll need to make sure those pets are not service or emotional support animals first.

Finding good tenants is no easy task, even when housing is in high demand. But in order to ensure you’ll be free of potential liability, you’ll need to make certain you’re following the letter of the law when you’re screening tenant applications. Otherwise, you could find yourself in legal hot water later on.

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