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Screening Tenants Using Social Media

December 27, 2019

Is Using Social Media a Form of Discrimination?

Landlords have a lot of tools and data sources to help them screen in good prospective renters and screen out undesirable ones.

And landlords today are using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, and other social media networks to check out prospective renters.

Newer, younger, untrained landlords have less “selection experience” and are far more likely to use whatever tools are available online, even if they’re not proven or legal.

Controversy Getting Heated

The matter is controversial to some including tenants and housing advocates who suggest social media discriminates.  And further, they feel it might not be effective in screening out nasty tenants, those who damage property, don’t pay their rent, or end up as costly evictions. But can they prove it?

As Artificial Intelligence bots and algorithms enter the tenant screening scene, it will be more difficult to prove discrimination. As the AI system becomes autonomous, the developers are not sure how it makes decisions.  It’s a brave new era for the rental housing industry.

The boundaries are a grey zone and landlords may have to prove they’re innocent of discrimination.  We’ve got some tenant screening tips below that might help you avoid trouble.

HUD Charges Facebook with Discrimination

A few years ago, some tenants complained that landlords were using Facebook’s advertising network to exclude them from seeing ads for available apartment rentals. Facebook’s advertising system does allow the advertiser to control to whom their ads get shown. And last spring, HUD actually charged Facebook with discrimination.

Screenshot courtesy of CNN Money

Screen capture courtesy of adage.com

Landlords of course have limited advertising budgets.  You need to advertise directly to your ideal renter audience. In this way, you’re creating your ideal customer cost effectively. And in business that’s considered good practice.

However, poorer qualified renters might never see your ads nor have a chance to apply (based on their social profiles and personal social media activity). Similarly, landlords can advertise on websites where only their targeted renters would visit. It seems selecting where or how your advertised listings are seen, and how they’re written may also present discrimination challenges.

The US Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits rental home or apartment advertisements from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.

Legal Discrimination

Landlords are allowed to discriminate based on legally accepted factors such as employment status, rental history, and credit ratings, even though these may actually affect some good prospective tenants. For instance, a renter who has been removed consecutive times from their previous rentals (because the owners decided to sell the property) would have their credit rating and tenant status lowered.

Where and how landlords can advertise rental opportunities might be a contentious point in 2020. Rental housing laws may have to be rewritten.  And given the availability of rentals is near zero in California, New York, Miami, Seattle, and Boston etc, this issue could be heated one in the coming years.

What Shows up on Social Media Networks: Personality and Character?

One tenant screening service called Certn, which we introduced in our list of 30 handy landlord apps post, utilizes some controversial data such as personality factors. In some circles such as employment screening, personality tests are very respected methods to find the best people. Employers frequently check the job candidate online.

It makes sense this might be a better way for landlords to get the best tenants too. In terms of validity though, we have to take Certn’s claim at face value.

Could tenants be screened out automatically because of their choice of words or some of the images a robot scanned on their Twitter page or FB page?

What About Their Posts and Images?

If landlords can see on Facebook or Instagram let’s say, frequent examples of the applicant being intoxicated, or opinionated, using drugs, being a loud party animal, mentioning their unlisted pet, showing irresponsible behavior, cursing and swearing, posting semi-pornographic, exhibitionist or even narcissistic images, strong religious statements, disparagement of others, is it okay to be affected by that in tenant screening?

If landlords have only previous landlord’s reports, personal references, and tenant payment histories to go by, is it wrong to use this additional information? If you’re renting out a unit in the house where you reside yourself, the matter really gets personal for you.

Orienting Yourself Not to Discriminate

It’s believed that most landlords will check prospective tenants out online. So what if we highlighted a responsible way to check out someone on social media? Perhaps it’s not the medium. It might be our intent and how we use online information.

  • Consider carefully whether social media will give you a true picture or if it might open you up to discrimination charges (for a property management company, a conviction could be very damaging).
  • The first thing is to not do anything in the name of discrimination. It’s important to tune out what their religious, ethnic background, gender, or skin color is.
  • With that out of the way, you can look to validate whether they are of good character, show signs of respecting other people and their property, and whether they keep their word.
  • You’re going to find out things that will set off alarm bells for sure. It’s wise to let people be spontaneous, express their political beliefs, and generally look at the big picture. Don’t use social media to justify a decision you’ve already made.

On the other hand, someone’s Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook page might make them look better and more responsible than they actually are. They could be gaming you, knowing you’re investigating them.

Social Media Tenant Targeting

Facebook has some amazing audience segmentation capabilities. You might find them hard to ignore. In fact, the big tenant finding services are probably using them too.

Given how dependent businesses are today on the major advertising monopolies, the discrimination suits against Facebook will keep coming. You’re looking for a few good tenants. Try to be objective and you’ll find the good ones you need.

 

Need to learn more about landlord legal issues? Our own Gordon Leung, long time property manager, explains how to approach today’s landlord issues and challenges such as proper lease management, building ops, building and tenant rules, tenant eviction, tenant requests, suite abandonment, and more. Protect your risk and liability.

 

 

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